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A Closer Look at the Grenfell Inquiry

By Olivia Kolasinski

On the morning of 14th June 2017, people across the country awoke to what was described by the Independent as “the biggest single loss of life in London since WW2”. In the early hours, an electrical fault in flat 16 of Grenfell Tower, North Kensington, had cost 72 people their lives and over 300 more their homes. 

A week ago, phase I of the public inquiry (started in August 2017) into what happened that day was published. The chairman, Sir Michael Moore-Bick spent months collating information from various sources, including experts in fire safety and building regulators; as well as members of the London Fire Brigade (LFB) who were present, survivors of the fire and relatives of those who were not so fortunate. 

The first 999 call of the night was made at 00:54 by Mr Behailu Kebede who discovered the fire in his kitchen, which resulted from an electrical fault in his fridge-freezer.

According to the timeline published in phase I, firefighters first entered the kitchen at 1:14am and extinguished the initial fire which had broken out. However, the fire had managed to cross into the walls before the fire department had even entered the building and by 1:30am the control room were receiving calls of the fire entering flats on the 22nd floor, meaning in just 20 minutes the fire had engulfed the building. Despite this, the “stay put” order was only formally revoked at 2:47 by AC Anthony Roe, a decision slammed in the report for being made far too late. ITV reports that fire damage was so severe, “it is likely the tower would have collapsed” if it had been built to the significantly less “stringent” requirements of current building regulations.

The stay put initiative has been defended by LFB commissioner Dany Cotton as “not [being] an LFB or a fire service policy” but a “policy based on buildings behaving in the correct manner that allow firefighters to enter the building and put the fire out.” The idea behind this protocol is that the building is divided into “compartments” (i.e. individual flats) and fires are prevented from entering other compartments by barriers (e.g. floors, walls, ceilings). In theory, other residents should be safe to stay inside their own flats, allowing the fire brigade access to individual flats via the stairs. Without this, there would be a panic of people in corridors trying to get out of the building and the fire brigade would not be able to get to the fire quickly and efficiently enough to put it out; therefore, increasing time for the fire to spread to other compartments, endangering more lives. This idea is one that has been proven to work time and time again in instances of fires in high rise buildings and Ms Cotton controversially said of the policy; it “is not a fire service policy to review”. There have been many calls from survivors and from the general public for Ms Cotton to retire, however no moves have been made on this front.

Though he admires the “courage” and “devotion to duty” of the fire brigade, Sir Moore-Bick follows this with blowing comments about the lack of training and initiative to abandon the “stay put” protocol. Something that he says “would have saved a lot more lives if it had been abandoned earlier”. However, a former firefighter and fire safety expert (Mr Bob Parkin), speaking on ‘This Morning’, contradicts this claim, stating that this is not a feasible comment to make - more lives might have been lost in an evacuation procedure with people panicking to get out the building as quickly as possible, swarming the stairs and leaving no room for first responders to get to the fire. He reinstates the effectiveness of the stay put initiative in other situations and reiterates the magnitude of the disaster as a situation far beyond anyone’s control or imagination.

LFB Control Room Operators (CRO) are required to stay on the phone with people trapped in burning buildings until they are rescued. Due to the sheer scale of the Grenfell fire and the overwhelming number of 999 calls received, the control room was unable to answer every call, or remain on call with all those who needed them. Though this is called a major “fault” by the chairman, this may be due to cuts implemented by (then) London Mayor, Boris Johnson, which lead to the closure of 10 fire departments and 552 firefighters losing their jobs. The cuts were made in order to save £28.8million (according to BBC News), though in reality the cuts only served to “compromise public safety”.

Though the report was set to be published officially on the 30th October 2019, the bereaved, survivors and relatives of Grenfell were granted access to the report two days before, in order to allow time for them to properly read and understand the comments before they were made public. However, the report was leaked before those directly affected were able to access it, leading to cries of outrage over the internet about the criticisms of the fire department, as well as the revelations about the tower itself.

The materials and comments about the structure of the building are the primary focus of phase II of the report, set to be published in early 2020, however reference and comments about these make up a great part of phase I. 

An important comment made, is that if it had been in its original form, including “exposed concrete” walls and “timber or metal windows”, the fire would not have been able to spread in such a way to any of the neighbouring flats, and should instead have been contained within flat 16. However, the tower underwent massive renovations from 2012-2016, including the introduction of nine new flats on the third floor, new windows and a ventilated rainproof polyethylene outer layer outside floors 4-23 (floors 1-3 had glass-reinforced concrete castings and subsequently were not involved in the fire) Polyethylene is a highly combustible material and this cladding, as uncovered by BBC News, received E and C classifications in 2014/15 conducted European tests (rated from A-F with A being the best). At the time the legal requirement for high-rise buildings was a B rating, though after Grenfell this has been increased to an A rating. Other renovations which greatly increased the spread of the fire include the installation of new aluminium windows, which were both slightly smaller than the old windows, and sat “flush” with the new cladding system rather than the actual concrete walls of the building. The gaps created were covered by EPDM (ethylene propylene diene monomer). Both aluminium and EPDM are highly combustible materials. The renovations also involved changes to the “pre-cast concrete architectural crown”. The crown was installed purely for “aesthetic” reasons, but was named in the report as one of the greatest factors for the spread of the fire. Grenfell United (a group of survivors/bereaved) have said that reports of the renovations being unsatisfactory and worsening the effects of the fire were “not surprising to those of us that lived in the tower.” They stated it was “clear to [them] the refurbishment was shoddy and second rate” but when they raised concerns, they were “not just ignored, but bullied to keep quiet”.

In his report, Sir Moore-Bick also references another fire disaster which occurred in July 2009 in Camberwell, London due to an electrical fault in a television set. Starting on floor 9, the fire quickly enveloped the 14 storey, 98 flat complex, claiming the lives of six people, three of whom were children, and causing 15 to be admitted to hospital. As was the case with Grenfell, the investigation into the Lakanal House fire found that renovations to the building had removed “fire stopping” materials between compartments, thus allowing the fire to spread rapidly, though this was not identified by inspections carried out by the council. However unlike with Grenfell, no public inquiry was made into this fire, although there were calls for one from the Fire Brigades Union and from chancellor Ian Wingfield. Of those who were working on the night of the Lakanal House fire, four were also working the night Grenfell burned down, undoubtedly triggering back unpleasant memories.

Further backlash has come from an interview this week with Jacob Rees-Mogg on LFB in which he questions the intelligence of the frightened people stuck inside the building and claims if they had just used “common sense”, they would have known not to follow firefighter commands and to evacuate the building as quickly as possible. 

Ultimately the disastrous accident that befell Grenfell was just that, an accident. The electrical fault that happened could have occurred anywhere. However, other factors, such as the building materials and decisions made by the fire department, who clung to known protocol beyond the time for which it was appropriate, worsened the situation and unfortunately led to 72 people losing their lives. As stated by the chairman in his introduction, this must not be allowed to occur again. Several recommendations have been outlined by this primary phase which will be implemented without delay, regardless of the outcome of the December elections.