The Scottish response to Grenfell Tower Inquiry

‘In Scotland, most fires in high-rise domestic buildings are contained in the flat where the fire originated, and often to the room of origin. There have been no deaths outside the flat of origin in the past decade in Scotland’.

The Scottish Government published its response to the Grenfell Tower Inquiry Phase 1 Report recommendations on October 29. This is a product of the Ministerial Working Group for Building and Fire Safety established in the aftermath of the fire on June 14, 2017.

The report sets out how the Scottish Government is dealing with the 46 recommendations in the Phase 1 Report. Fifteen are for the building owners and managers and 31 directed specifically at London Fire Brigade and the wider Fire and Rescue Service. The Scottish Fire and Rescue Service (SFRS) is addressing the latter and formed a working group to develop and co-ordinate an action plan. The ambition for change has, as in many other areas of Fire and Rescue Service business, been affected by Covid-19. As a result, there is slippage in some of the timescales.

Before looking at what SFRS is doing to address the recommendations, it is worth understanding the volume of affected buildings in Scotland. There are 774 high-rise domestic buildings, with over 46,000 individual dwellings in Scotland (as of March 2020). These are mostly located in towns and cities across the central belt of Scotland, with 372 in Glasgow and 134 in Edinburgh. Just over a third of high-rise domestic buildings in Scotland are owned by registered social landlords, with the remaining two thirds divided fairly evenly between local authorities and private owners. Nearly half of this building stock was constructed in the 1960s.

Scottish Fire Safety Legislation

Fire safety legislation in Scotland is different to that in England.

‘The Grenfell Inquiry requires most recommendations for those responsible for fire safety to be implemented “in law” and draws on the legal position in England. The position in Scotland is different; as fire safety is a devolved matter, the legal requirements and responsibilities are contained in different fire safety, building standards and housing legislation. The proposed changes to fire safety legislation for England and Wales will not apply in Scotland’.

Regardless of the difference in legislation, the Scottish Government has been busy introducing new regulations and guidance in response to the Grenfell Tower fire. These include:

  • Lowering the height at which combustible cladding can be used from 18 metres to 11 metres to align with firefighting from the ground.
  • Tighter controls over the combustibility of cladding systems on hospitals, residential care buildings, entertainment and assembly buildings regardless of building height.
  • Introducing Fire Service activated “evacuation alert systems”, floor and dwelling indicator signs and two escape stairs in all new high-rise domestic buildings.
  • Extending the minimum standard for smoke and fire alarms that already applied in the private rented sector to all housing tenures, ensuring the highest level of protection whether they own their home or rent from a social or private landlord.

This is impressive given that the Westminster Parliament has only recently consulted on the changes that need to be made to fire safety legislation in England. The addition of a new requirement for sprinklers goes beyond the Grenfell recommendations and will be welcomed by those lobbying for expanding the reach of sprinklers for buildings in England.

There is one important difference in fire safety legislation that is relevant to a discussion about Grenfell: in Scotland, fire safety legislation does not include the common areas of blocks of flats. As a result of this, SFRS does not have an enforcing role. This may sound like a minor point, but in the case of Grenfell and indeed all blocks of flats, fire safety in common parts is critical to ensure that residents can live safely and can escape in the event of a fire.

Under a different piece of legislation – the Civic Government (Scotland) Act 1982 – occupants have duties to keep common parts free of obstructions that might affect access into or out of a building in the event of a fire (including the Fire and Rescue Service in its response). SFRS can enter the building to check compliance and can compel the occupants to remove items that increase risk.

What is not clear is how SFRS is able to reconcile the proactive risk-based inspection programme for buildings under fire safety legislation with a reactive approach set out in the 1982 Act. It may be the case that the risk inspection duties set out in the Fire (Scotland) Act 2005 provide for the proactive inspection of the common parts of high-rise domestic buildings and use the duties in the 1982 Act to enforce fire safety but with no risk assessment to look at. It all seems unnecessarily complex.

This explains why the Scottish Government commissioned a review of the Scottish fire safety regime. The final report published in December 2018 addressed the complexities of the regime in Scotland and came up with some short-term solutions mostly framed around guidance to those with existing legal responsibilities. The main product from this review being Practical fire safety guidance for existing high-rise domestic buildings.  

Regarding any legislative change to tidy up the current system, the Scottish Government’s response to the Grenfell Tower Phase 1 Report concludes: ‘Additional measures, including legislation, will be considered and implemented if deemed to be required to mitigate risk and achieve a satisfactory level of fire safety’.

Looking at the Fire and Rescue Service-related recommendations, SFRS carried out its own gap analysis. ‘This analysis concluded that in all instances, SFRS have existing policies and procedures which address, to some degree, the core issues raised by the 31 recommendations within the Phase 1 report. SFRS have arrangements in place, within the Scottish operating and regulatory context, which meet the intention of 11 recommendations. Of the remaining 20 recommendations work is ongoing to build on existing arrangements to ensure that the lessons learnt from Grenfell Tower are incorporated into SFRS procedures and much of this work is aligned to existing workstreams’.

High-rise Firefighting

Much of the attention of the Phase 1 recommendations was on, understandably, high-rise firefighting procedures. In London the policy is PN633, but in Scotland they refer to a Standard Operating Procedure for High Rise Buildings. This has been reviewed, aligned with relevant National Operational Guidance and a new version published in June 2020. It includes guidance on transitioning from ‘stay put’ to evacuation; use of evacuation information boards; and arrangements for partial and total evacuation of high-rise buildings.

Inspecting buildings to assess risk is critical for operational personnel to understand what they may be confronted with in the event of a fire. Carrying out those inspections is one of the duties in the Fire (Scotland) Act 2005; SFRS call these Operational Assurance Visits (OAV). The Grenfell Phase 1 Report refers to 7 (2) (d) visits as this refers to the equivalent part of the Fire and Rescue Services Act 2004 which applies to England.

One of Sir Martin’s criticisms was that London Fire Brigade personnel did not have knowledge of the materials used in the construction of Grenfell Tower and that visits to inspect buildings were cursory at best. The SFRS action plan refers to the development of: ‘An additional training aid to facilitate improved knowledge and consistency of high-rise operational assurance visits’. In addition, SFRS is also looking to review the high-rise information plate system that tells firefighters about a building.

With many of the recommendations focused on the relationship between the control room and either those on the ground, in charge or residents calling 999 for help, SFRS indicate a high level of progress relating to training, procedures and guidance. They have also seconded two officers to the National Operational Guidance project to create new guidance for Fire Survival Guidance and Emergency Call Handling.

Call Handling

The sheer volume of calls to the London Fire Brigade control room was enormous and overwhelming on the night of the Grenfell Tower fire. Sir Martin recommended that all fire and rescue services develop policies for handling a large number of fire survival guidance calls simultaneously.

In Scotland there are three fire control rooms which all operate on different mobilising legacy systems. There are ongoing efforts to reconcile this by introducing a new bespoke command and control management system. In the meantime, SFRS has developed a draft procedure to deal with spate conditions but are yet to test or exercise it due to Covid-19 restrictions. SFRS is also contributing to national work to improve fail over when one control room is overwhelmed.

Interestingly, SFRS state in response to the recommendation about displaying fire survival guidance information at the bridgehead (the safe position within a building from where firefighting operations are directed): ‘Direct communication from OC to the bridgehead does not align with IC procedures and could inhibit appropriate flow of information to OIC and will not be pursued by SFRS’.

Whether this is something specific to the way that SFRS operate or is a response common to all is not clear. The London report makes reference to an exercise held in February 2020 where they trialled a proof of concept for: ‘An enhanced procedure to address the recommendation on communication between the bridgehead and the control room’.

Multi-agency Response

The relationship between fire and rescue services with the other blue light services is explored in the Grenfell Phase 1 Report. Being able to share information about incidents between different blue light control rooms is done in a fairly manual way, but there is an existing electronic protocol that would automate this process, speeding it up and increasing accuracy. The Multi Agency Incident Transfer (MAIT) protocol is key to this and it is good to see SFRS is investigating using it in Scotland.

Separately, Sir Martin commented on the way that the police helicopter was used on the night of the fire and how data was transferred to the LFB control room. The recommendation stated: ‘That steps be taken to ensure that the airborne datalink system on every NPAS helicopter observing an incident which involves one of the other emergency services defaults to the National Emergency Service user encryption’. The SFRS action plan notes that this is not currently possible (although the London implementation report says this change has been implemented) and is looking at this in conjunction with Police Scotland.

In the only equipment specific recommendation, Sir Martin recommended that all fire and rescue services should be equipped with smoke hoods to assist in the evacuation of occupants through smoke-filled routes. In England, more than half of fire and rescue services have bought smoke hoods with many of them already in use on the frontline. SFRS has started a six-month trial of smoke hoods in selected areas and is also trialling three smoke curtains.

Action Plan

Kudos to SFRS for publishing their action plan to deal with the Phase 1 Report recommendations, it is clear that a lot of progress has been made but there is more to be done. The dashboard approach to reporting lays bare the progress and the slippage, but that is OK and to be expected. It would be good if all fire and rescue services reported like this; sorting out a consistent data reporting format would allow the public to see more easily what is being done across the UK to improve safety for communities and firefighters alike.

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