“Get on with it”: Grenfell response at the Fire Sector Summit

Opening this year’s London event in November, the Fire Protection Association’s Managing Director Jonathan O’Neill remarked that the recommendations in the recent Grenfell Tower Public Inquiry Phase 1 Report were “much in line with expectations,” but added that the observations on Fire and Rescue Service (FRS) management failures had “caused the greatest stir.”

FPA Managing Director Jonathan O’Neill’s message to government in responding to Grenfell: “This isn’t rocket science – so get on with it immediately – please”
Photo FPA/Sarah Turton


Nonetheless, the FRS should see them not as an attack but an opportunity to show it listens and learns, recognise changing risk profiles and “demand the resources to sort this out.” He called on those in power to review building regulations; mandate third party certification; ban single staircase escapes in tall buildings; install sprinklers and high integrity detection and evacuation measures; and ban combustible materials in every high risk occupancy. “This isn’t rocket science, so get on with it immediately please,” he urged (see box on pg 16 for comment).

State of Fire

CFO Phil Loach of the National Fire Chiefs Council (NFCC) reported that the Hackitt review and first phase report had “sent shockwaves through the sector.” The latter stressed the need to transform, and the NFCC could help with improving risk management, protection, prevention and emergency response.

Also, NFCC is reviewing its 2017-2020 commitments in finance, governance, workforce, community risk assessment and digital solutions, “to bring consistency… whilst recognising and enabling the need for localism.”

While spotlighting NFCC’s fire safety work through enforcement, risk-based high-rise inspection, public reassurance and advice, Mr Loach emphasised how financial reviews affect fire sector priorities and “layers of prevention and protection.”

Future plans include extending the Digital and Data Programme to cover its other (People, and Community Risk) programmes and promote consistency, he explained, and further partnership working will help to influence wider engagement, approach and delivery.

Beechmere Fire

CFO Mark Cashin, Cheshire Fire and Rescue Service (CFRS), discussed the “large loss” fire in Crewe this summer. The H-shaped building had a large open central atrium, small independent living apartments and shared facilities, and was called a “care home on the cheap” by a local MP. While internally “very high specification,” it was a sustainable “quick build.”


CFO Mark Cashin, Cheshire Fire and Rescue Service, spoke about the Beechmere fire and told delegate that it “felt like we were chasing our own tails” and crews were “frustrated that the building got away from us”

Photo FPA/Sarah Turton


‘Stay put’ was quickly suspended by the CFRS officer in charge, “a good idea in the end,” because the fire started outside and entered the building, beginning on the roof where hot works were taking place – contractors tried to fight it for half an hour. It went through a protected staircase and dry riser “in less than an hour,” with compartmentation failing and “sudden and total collapse” of the roof occurring within four hours. Eight hours in, the structure was still intact, but another “explosive” spread saw fire present at all levels, with the structure lost 15 hours in.

Cheshire Fire and Rescue Service “felt like we were chasing our own tails,” and were “frustrated that the building got away from us” as it was “almost impossible to fight.” Investigations are looking at the construction’s effect on fire spread, with “lots of data to find” that might help to understand why it “did not perform as expected.” If the fire had taken place in winter, “many may have died,” CFO Cashin stated.

Smoke and Toxicity

Ash and Lacy’s Dr Jonathan Evans, from the “more sensible end of the cladding industry,” shared views from within the Metal Cladding and Roofing Manufacturers Association (MCRMA). Grenfell’s first phase report squarely points to the “principal reason” for fire spread as the tower’s ACM cladding, highlighting that external walls failed to comply with Approved Document B (ADB) Section B4, and smoke hindered rescue and escape efforts.

The focus needs to be on smoke control, he stressed, showing relevant paragraphs in the report summary on the loss of compartmentation and fire spread that were peppered with the word “smoke”. Describing problems with designing for smoke control – including resistance to regulation, insufficiency of the A2-s1, d0 requirement of Regulation 7, and the role of toxic smoke – he advocated a test to support graded classification, proof of smoke compartmentation, and the ability to analyse toxicity, debris and damage classification.

Dr Evans encouraged industry to drive change, as government does not listen, ignoring criticism of Advice Notes and numerous warnings about Class 0 and composite materials, the toxicity of products such as polyisocyanurate (PIR), and high pressure laminate (HPL) testing.

If smoke is not regulated, he warned, it “would be consistent” for the government to reinstate BS 8414 after the review, while maintaining it had addressed shortcomings – “and with industry agreement” – with no bar to manufacturers “flooding their products with chemical flame retardants to pass the test”.

The solution? The FPA, MCRMA and University of Central Lancashire should develop their own BS 8414 version, augmented with smoke and toxicity testing, in which common combinations of materials could be benchmarked.

Warehouse Fires

Graham Atkinson of the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) explored toxic risks from warehouse fires, relating this to contaminations at Grenfell and Notre-Dame. With increasing public concerns over health risks, he asked “are they right?” noting “we may have to consider this more in future.”

HSE has been assessing risks from chemical fires for “nearly 30 years,” and under the COMAH Regulations can “grant or withhold permission” for storing toxic chemicals, and advise “for or against” developments near sites. Identifying major accident hazards can help “assess the extent and severity” of potential risks. There is also a legal responsibility to assess toxic fume risks, ‘motivate and guide’ improvements, and support a “let burn” policy to “avert worse damage and risks.”

It was “hard to prove there is not a risk posed by fumes,” and entirely possible to surmise a plume at Grenfell may have been 1km wide, 100m high and 290m long, though analyses are “excessively conservative,” and a “more realistic” model was required.

Toxicity Risks

Cambridge University’s Vitalina Chamberlain-Evans looked at toxicity health effects, the two types of which are acute, which harms quickly and can kill; and chronic, which causes long-term problems. Fire toxicity is the “biggest cause of death and injury,” with carbon monoxide (CO) and hydrogen cyanide (HCN) common toxins.

CO is naturally produced in the body, stored in muscles if there is too much, and removed in the lungs – over 30 per cent concentration can kill, while ten to 30 per cent causes “reversible” organ damage. HCN is 35 times more toxic, disrupts energy, kills cells and affects the brain.

Antibodies recognise and remember new molecules within the body, but the burning of manmade chemicals exposes us to molecules “not known to nature.” This means the body “can’t defend itself,” while chronic exposure can affect a body at all levels, even DNA – smoke particulates enter through the lungs and gut, can cause genetic changes and stay in the body “forever” when absorbed by organs.

Former Fire Minister Jim Fitzpatrick

Labour MP and former Fire Minister Jim Fitzpatrick addressed delegates on the day he retired, exploring his FRS and political experiences having joined London Fire Brigade in 1974. “Huge changes” include “much better” firefighter life expectancy, “improved” standards of health and fitness and better legislation, alongside the “sea change” heralded by breathing apparatus and the FRS’s “changing landscapes and roles.”

Following his election as MP for Poplar and Limehouse, while in government he set up the All Party Parliamentary Group for Fire, which has a “good profile and support across the parties,” and “leads the charge” in trying to amend ADB. While Fire Minister from 2005 to 2006, the Regulatory Reform (Fire Safety) Order 2005 was put into law, which he called a “game changer.”

For him, the government is “not keeping up and has to do much more to keep abreast” of challenges posed by fire. He had the “greatest of respect” for the sector, and added, “if we can work together, we can make the country a safer place.”

Closing Comments

Reflecting on the valuable insights and discussions of the day, FPA chairman John Smeaton remarked that in theory a block of flats could be built today with the same regulations as before the Grenfell fire. Yet modern buildings react differently in fire to traditional ones, and sadly, “our building monitoring skills don’t match our passion for innovation.”

He saw “a lot of weak words” in the recommendations (eg the word “should” needs replacing with “must”), and we must prioritise them, “as early change will deliver early results,” as well as defining “what is acceptable evidence as a deliverable to get the change we require.”



FPA Managing Director Jonathan O’Neill on the Grenfell Report

“I think that it is well-balanced and its recommendations are pretty much as expected. As we all know it points out that the tower was clad in combustible materials which were responsible for the rapid fire growth and which led to the largest loss of life in fire in the UK since the second world war – but it is of course his observations about the Fire Service that have caused the greatest stir.

“It should of course be remembered that he commented heavily on the bravery and commitment of the firefighters deployed to that job. However, he did also point to management failures and that has been the focus.

“The success the fire and rescue services have had in reducing deaths and injuries and the number of fires they are called to attend is second to none. I am fortunate enough in the job that I do – to travel around the world meeting fellow fire professionals – and prior to June 14, 2017 the UK’s community fire safety programme was what everyone internationally wanted to discuss and to emulate.

“Sadly the success of this programme led to complacency in my mind. Minister and officials thought that the fire problem had been cracked – we didn’t have a building regulations review for 12 years so we allowed more combustible materials into the building process and – I believe that this is the crux of the matter – we allowed austerity to hit the Fire Service and the knife was too sharp and the cuts were too deep.

“Something invariably gives. Whether it be training. Whether it be inspections. Whether it be kit and equipment or more probably a combination of all of these – something gives.

“Many will have heard me say this before – insurers have been aware for some time that there was a problem. In a period when the number fires having dropped by 40 per cent – fires have been getting bigger year-on-year – claims continued to hold steady and in fact they rose.

“So I would make this plea to the fire and rescue services – please don’t see Sir Martin’s comments and recommendations as an attack – see them as an opportunity. If Dame Judith Hackitt gets her way, you are likely to be asked to do more and more and to be better at – you mustn’t stand by and see others moving out the shadow of austerity whilst you are left behind.

“Show that you are a Service that listens and learns. Recognise the changing risk profile of your patch such as greater numbers of at-risk groups and individuals being accommodated in more-combustible, less-resilient structures and demand the resources to sort this out.

“And to government – get on with it. Yesterday I heard that you aren’t planning to introduce the legislation that will see Hackitt’s recommendations become law until the middle of next year and that the law will take about a year to get through the parliamentary process. That is four years after Grenfell – it is too long.

“So I make this plea – after the General Election – whoever is in power: get on with in. Make the changes in building regulations that are so obvious they really don’t require further scrutiny. Mandate third party certification. Ban single staircase escapes in tall buildings.

Install sprinklers and high integrity detection and evacuation. And Ban combustible materials in all high-risk occupancies regardless of the buildings height.

“This isn’t rocket science – so get on with it immediately – please.”

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