Fire chiefs express shock at evidence presented during second phase of the Grenfell Tower Inquiry
Evidence that has emerged in the opening days of the second phase of Grenfell Tower Inquiry has been met with shock and anger by the Chair of the National Fire Chiefs Council
The National Fire Chiefs Council (NFCC) believes that the evidence presented during the first three days of Phase 2 of the Inquiry shows a clear lack of concern for fire safety and a blatant disregard for people’s safety – which undoubtedly contributed to the loss of life at Grenfell Tower.
The second phase is concentrating on how – and why – the building was clad in a flammable material during its refurbishment. This follows the first phase which found the cladding system was the “principal” reason for the rapid and “profoundly shocking” spread of the fire.
Emails disclosed to the Inquiry suggest companies knew the components of the cladding system would fail in the event of a fire.
Chair of the NFCC, Roy Wilsher, commented: “The extent of the revelations in the first few days is shocking. What we have heard so far makes it clear manufacturers and distributors were fully aware of the flammability of the cladding system components.
“I am astounded as to how the building was allowed to be in this state. It was effectively a tragedy waiting to happen for those living in Grenfell Tower; and it is indefensible that we still have such cladding systems on buildings across the country. Fire and rescue services are doing their upmost to minimise the risk, but 20 years of building safety failure is not the responsibility of fire and rescue.
“This situation left London Fire Brigade facing an impossible situation when faced with the enormity of the fire, with no prior knowledge of the materials used in the refurbishment.”
The evidence given so far reinforces NFCC’s view that the background into the refurbishment – and state of the building – should have been examined ahead of looking at the fire service’s response.
Mr Wilsher added: “The findings of the first phase of the Inquiry were highly critical of London Fire Brigade. However, this evidence reinforces our view that there was no way firefighters could know the extent of what they were facing that night.
“This confirms how important risk-based funding is for fire and rescue services, which are facing significantly more risk than they can reasonably know. It shows that, without doubt, investment in fire and rescue services is needed if we are to play our rightful part in future building safety regimes.
“I believe the bereaved, survivors and families deserve better; I truly hope they get the answers they need from Phase 2.”
The Inquiry heard that residents had asked the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea (RBKC) three months before the fire for an assessment of the tower block by an independent health and safety inspector.
An RBKC official wrote to the then-chief executive of the tenant management company that they were ‘not minded to agree to this request’ and that the company’s work had been ‘more than sufficient’. This has clearly shown to have been a flawed position.
Evidence presented so far includes:
- Decisions taken to use ACM cladding to make savings in the region of £450,000.
- Fire engineers being excluded from communications about the details of the cladding.
- An internal email from the insulation manufacturer where an executive admitted to a distributor it was ‘clearly wrong’ to think it was okay to use combustible insulation on buildings of any height.
- Emails show that distributors of the cladding stating they would only use non-combustible cladding if ‘specifically challenged’.
- In April 2016, while works on Grenfell were ongoing, Arconic (cladding manufacturer) was sent guidance stating that UK building regulations required ‘all significant elements of each and every layer of the wall to be non-combustible or of limited combustibility’.
Strengthening fire safety in specialised housing
New guidance to reduce the risk from fire in specialised housing, such as sheltered and supported accommodation, has been published by the Scottish Government
Older people and people with physical, sensory or mental health issues are at increased risk of injury or death from fires.
The guidance – called Practical Fire Safety Guidance for Specialised Housing and Similar Premises – helps those responsible for the housing and those who provide care and support services in such properties to carry out fire safety risk assessments, taking into account the requirements of individual residents.
The guidance is a recommendation of the Review of the Fire Safety Regime in Scotland, following the fire at Grenfell Tower in 2017.
Community Safety Minister Ash Denham said: “While there has been a significant reduction in the number of fires and related deaths and injuries in domestic properties in the last 20 years, a disproportionate number of those involve older people or others with contributory factors such as physical, cognitive and mental health issues.
“We already have stringent regulations in place and it is extremely important that fire safety measures taken by those responsible for specialised housing meet the needs of the individuals living in them. This new guidance will help further reduce the risks of fire in order to keep our communities safe.”
For this guidance, specialised housing includes: sheltered/very sheltered/extra-care housing – mainly (but not exclusively) for older people living at home with different levels of care or support.
Minister sets out new vision for Wales’ fire and rescue services
Wales’ fire and rescue services could be given a wider role in keeping people safe as part of the Welsh Government’s future vision for the service, Deputy Minister for Housing and Local Government, Hannah Blythyn, has announced
Wales has the most extensive programme of home fire safety visits in Great Britain, which focuses effectively on people most at risk of fire. The Welsh Government provides the service with £660,000 in funding to ensure these visits, and the safety devices which are supplied as part of them, are completely free to householders.
This success means the demand on the service is now so low, the service is increasingly under-occupied in many parts of Wales, a spokesperson told FIRE.
Many rural fire stations now respond to only a handful of fires a month. This is making it difficult to recruit and retain the on-call firefighters on which most of Wales relies, and risks jeopardising the sustainability of the service in rural areas.
In addition, the fire service continues to attend a high number of false alarms – which outnumber actual fires, accounting for around 40 per cent of all incidents the service attends, and consume significant resources for no benefit at all.
The future vision for the service being outlined involves the possibility of giving Wales’ fire and rescue services responsibility for responding to a range of threats to people’s health and safety, both in terms of prevention and emergency response.
Deputy Minister for Housing and Local Government, Hannah Blythyn, said: “I would like to thank our fire and rescue services in Wales for their continued success in reducing both the incidence and severity of fire. I have little doubt that this success is partly due to the great emphasis that the fire service places on preventing fire and improving awareness of fire risks.
“Firefighters are highly trained to deal with a wide range of incidents besides fires, and have the expertise and respect to raise awareness of and prevent non-fire threats too. There is clear potential for the service to make a real contribution to supporting the NHS in particular, whether in terms of responding to medical emergencies or helping to prevent accidents like falls at home; and clear evidence that this can secure better outcomes and significant savings. There are many impressive examples of this happening, but they are often small-scale and piecemeal.
“I believe we need to go further, and to do so more consistently and strategically. I want to see a fire and rescue service which deals with a range of threats to people’s health and safety, both in terms of prevention and emergency response, complementing not duplicating the work of other professionals. Only by doing so can we maximise the service’s public value and secure a sustainable future for it.
“There is real potential to capitalise on the success the service has already achieved and to maximise its value to the people of Wales. I will make a further announcement in due course on the way ahead.”
Sprinkler system saves life and property
Nottinghamshire Fire and Rescue Service report on working collaboratively with Nottingham City Homes in retro fitting sprinklers in high-rise blocks
On February 6, crews from Stockhill and Arnold fire stations attended Winchester Court, Chestnut Walk, Sherwood following reports of a flat fire on the ninth floor.
Upon arrival one resident had self-rescued thanks to the early warning and activation of the buildings sprinkler and alarm system.
Nottinghamshire Fire and Rescue Service (NFRS) have worked collaboratively with Nottingham City Homes (NCH) by providing advice and guidance on the retro fitting of the sprinkler systems since the Grenfell Tower fire in June 2017. Following this tragic incident, sprinklers have now been retro fitted in all areas of Winchester Court and are being fitted in all Nottingham City Homes’ high-rise blocks to ensure the safety of their residents from fire.
The sprinklers activated, extinguishing the fire which is believed to have been caused by a portable heater being positioned too close to furnishings. Swift action was taken by the crews to provide emergency first aid to the resident and to access the stop valve and isolate the supply of water to further reduce damage within the property. Due to the early extinguishing of the fire there was minimum damage to the property, which was limited to the room where the fire started.
Fire Protection Station Manager Jonathan Holford said: “Once again, this incident provides evidence to prove that ‘sprinklers save lives’. Due to the hard work by Nottingham City Homes in retro fitting sprinkler systems within all of their high-rise blocks, another life has been saved and another fire extinguished, reducing building damage and cost to Nottingham City Homes and the public purse. NFRS continue to support the National Fire Chiefs Council position on sprinklers which save lives, reduce injury and protect firefighters, whilst limiting damage to property and the environment caused by fire.”
NCH’s Interim Head of Health and Safety, Andrew Bruynseels, said: “This incident proves once again that sprinklers save lives, and our residents can rest assured that their safety is our number one priority as we near completion of our sprinkler install programme at all the high-rises we manage across the city.”
Hundreds safer for decades thanks to £1 million fire service spending on sprinklers
South Yorkshire fire chiefs say hundreds of high-risk homes will be safer for decades to come, thanks to more than £1 million spent on fire sprinkler projects in the past five years
South Yorkshire Fire and Rescue spent the money fitting fire sprinklers in sbout 650 flats across the county in a bid to prompt owners of accommodation for mostly vulnerable residents to consider fire sprinklers as a long-term measure to keep their tenants safe.
More than 20 separate projects were awarded funding, with most of the money allocated match-funded by the building owners themselves.
An early beneficiary of the funding was the St Wilfrid’s Centre in Sheffield. Fire sprinklers were installed in a new 20-bed residential project that houses adults with complex needs.
High profile projects in Rotherham include a scheme to protect children with severe disabilities at a South Yorkshire Housing Association. The scheme was awarded £28,000 to retrofit fire sprinklers in a 15-flat facility on John Street in the town.
Funding for social housing developments in Barnsley means more than 100 Barnsley Council owned properties are protected.
Churchfields Sheltered housing, part of Berneslai Homes, was awarded funding for the retrofitting of automatic fire sprinklers in flats which mostly house older people.
Money was also spent to retrofit fire sprinklers at a high-rise block of flats in Doncaster – a decade after a similar scheme at Callow Mount in Sheffield highlighted the ease with which older tower blocks can be fitted with the potentially life-saving devices.
Assistant Chief Fire Officer Steve Helps said: “Fire sprinkler systems can have a life span of well over 50 years, meaning this money will help to keep thousands of people safe in these buildings for decades to come.
“Importantly, we’ve targeted our funding at properties where people are at a greater risk of fire for a range of factors including age, disability, mental health or substance misuse issues. Some of the schemes we’re most proud to have supported, are actually amongst the smallest, with relatively small amounts of money helping to protect small numbers of very vulnerable people in premises owned by charities and other organisations which wouldn’t ordinarily be able to afford to pay for projects of this nature on their own.”
Fire sprinklers in residential buildings remain topical with the second phase of the Grenfell Tower Inquiry now underway and a review of building fire safety regulations ongoing.
The government announced it was considering lowering the threshold from 30 metres to 11 metres tall for fire sprinklers to be installed in new build high-rise buildings.
“Fire sprinklers are a cost-effective way of making businesses and residential dwellings safer – they stop fires from spreading, put them out quickly, save lives and have a long working life span. We’re proud of the reputation we’ve built nationally as a leading fire and rescue service for our long-standing advocacy of the benefits of fire sprinklers. The projects we’ve funded are just another example of our work in this area,” said Steve.
Money for all of the funded projects came from South Yorkshire Fire and Rescue Authority’s Stronger Safer Communities Reserve, using from the authority’s reserves.
Recall-ready with Alexa app
Consumer protection charity Electrical Safety First reports on launching a new Alexa app to help slash the number of electrical fires in UK homes
Using voice technology to easily access information on product recalls, consumers can effortlessly discover if they have a recalled electrical item – simply by giving Alexa the item’s brand name.
Currently, product recalls achieve a success rate of just ten to 20 per cent, leaving a host of potentially unsafe electricals items still in use and presenting a significant risk of fire. In fact, research by the charity indicates almost 270 million unregistered electrical products are still in UK homes1. As only those consumers who register an item can be easily contacted in the case of a product recall, this means that there is a significant proportion of the population who will not know if one of their appliances is a safety risk. Electrical Safety First’s new Alexa app aims to boost those recall rates, preventing electrical fires caused by faulty devices.
“Electricity is responsible for over half of all UK domestic fires,” explains Emma Drackford, Director of Communications for Electrical Safety First. “In 2017, almost 5,000 fires2 were caused by faulty electrical appliances and leads, including recalled items – the equivalent of 13 fires per day across the UK3.
“We are committed to using every advantage provided by new technology to reduce this risk. We hope that by launching the Alexa app, people will use it to make ad-hoc checks while doing chores around the house, without having to open a website. It’s all about removing barriers and giving our audience the tools they need to use their electrical products more safely.”
Electrical Safety First worked with Manchester-based, digital agency Absurd, to develop and build the app.
1 Consumer research commissioned by Electrical Safety First and conducted by Censuswide surveying 5,000 people in the UK nationally representative of the population, found that respondents had an average of 9.86 unregistered electrical products in their home out of an average of 15.04 in total. This figure multiplied by the number of households in the UK according to ONS (27.2 million as of 2017) results in 267,648,000.
2 4,732 accidental domestic fires caused by faulty appliances and leads where the source of ignition was electric.
England: Figures from financial year 2016/17. Accessible at: https://www.gov.uk/government/statistical-data-sets/fire-statistics-data-tables#incident-level-datasets. Wales: StatsWales statistics on incidents attended by Fire and Rescue Services. Figures from financial year 2016/17. Accessible at:https://statswales.gov.wales/Catalogue/Community-Safety-and-Social-Inclusion/Community-Safety/Fire-Incidents/Fires-and-False-Alarms/accidentalprimaryfires-by-cause-sourceignition Scotland: Freedom of Information request sent to the Scottish Fire and Rescue Service, June 2016.
3 4,732 fires is the equivalent of 12.96 fires per day
Public warned to “vape safe” after man badly burnt by exploding e-cig
London Fire Brigade is supporting an Office for Product Safety Standards campaign to highlight the potential dangers of using vapes
A man was badly burnt and left with scars on his leg after a vape exploded in his pocket when it came into contact with his keys.
Fortunately for contractor Richard Bingham, he was at Whittington Hospital in Upper Holloway working when the accident happened and was immediately rushed to A&E.
Now the 37-year-old has joined London Fire Brigade in supporting an Office for Product and Safety Standards campaign which has been launched to highlight the potential dangers of using vapes.
The dad-of-one said: “I could hear a hissing and popping and I was looking around asking what it was. Then it stopped and all of a sudden I felt this heat in my pocket and I knew straight away what was happening.
“I was trying to get my vape out of my pocket but it was burning my hand so I couldn’t get it out. Everyone was helping me as I was trying to get my boots undone so I could get my trousers off but it was too late – I was already badly burnt. Hospital staff were coming out and pouring water over my leg.
“It all happened so quickly but I have never felt pain like it. I can laugh about it now, but I’ve never been so scared – it was like a bomb going off in my pocket.”
Richard suffered third degree burns on his left leg and also had blistering to his hand where he’d tried to retrieve the vape. Luckily, he didn’t need to have skin grafts, but he has been left with bad scarring and says it could have been even worse if he hadn’t happened to be working in a hospital at the time of the incident last summer.
The Brigade’s fire investigators believe the keys in Richard’s pocket may have caused the vape’s battery to short-circuit.
Ironically, Richard’s girlfriend works in a vape shop, but he was not aware that coming into contact with metal items could lead to them exploding.
Richard added: “I’ve been vaping for about four years and seen videos of them exploding but you just don’t expect it to go off like that. I must have been lucky as I’ve always had change or keys in my pocket – I just don’t think people are aware of the dangers.
“I did try to give up and haven’t been able to, but I’m so careful now. I’ve got one of the cases to keep everything in and I never carry my vape around with me and if I see other people vaping, I walk away.”
Although the Brigade has thankfully only attended a handful of incidents involving vape batteries, firefighters do have concerns about the near misses which have not been reported to them.
The Brigade’s Deputy Assistant Commissioner for Fire Safety, Charlie Pugsley, said: “Compared to the number of fires we see caused by cigarettes, vaping could be seen as a much safer option.
“However, we are concerned that there are often cases such as Richard’s where the batteries have short-circuited and gone out but there is a very real potential of them starting a serious fire.
“If you are using vaping products it’s vital you only use the charger it was supplied with and never overcharge it.”
First Northern Ireland Fire Industry Conference
As part of the Fire Industry Association’s Northern Ireland Week, the FIA will be hosting their first Northern Ireland Fire Industry Conference
The Northern Ireland Fire Industry Conference (NIFIC) will take place on April 23 at the Titanic Centre in Belfast, a monument to Belfast’s maritime heritage on the site of the former Harland & Wolff shipyard in the city’s Titanic Quarter where the RMS Titanic was built.
An FIA spokesperson told FIRE that in today’s competitive and ever-changing industry, it is now more important than ever to keep up-to-date with the latest industry developments, which is why this conference serves as an opportunity to all fire industry stakeholders. Aimed at all individuals already working in the fire trade including maintenance, installing, commissioning, designing, portable extinguishers, extinguishing systems or fire risk assessment and also those looking to move into the industry, the FIA’s NIFIC agenda should appeal to all.
The NIFIC will commence at 0830 with registration and finish at 1615. A selection of topics starts with a discussion around competency. This is followed by two seminars on BS 5839-1:2017 and its equally important counterpart BS 5839-6. This serves an opportunity to better understand what has been the FIA’s guidebook for decades; they are both recognised as being at the forefront of every decision made on the design, installation, commissioning and maintenance of fire detection and alarm systems. Just before the buffet lunch, you can hear from businesses who are behind a selection of industry changing innovations.
In the afternoon, NIFIC will cover all the transformational recommendations and changes that will come from Dame Judith Hackitt’s report. The conference will then explore a variety of the FIA’s research projects where we have collaborated with our members and other organisations to discover meaningful insights into the industry.
The FIA is proud to announce that the NIFIC will be free to attend for all delegates and that all seminars that take place will count towards your Continuing Professional Development hours.