Political Editor Catherine Levin scrutinises the HMICFRS report on London Fire Brigade’s response to implementing the Grenfell Inquiry Phase 1 report recommendations
The Inspectorate has been busy during the pandemic, inspecting fire and rescue services’ response to Covid-19 (see page 15 for more). The inspectors from HMICFRS also found time to revisit London Fire Brigade (LFB) and check up on how it has been getting on with implementing the Grenfell Inquiry Phase 1 report recommendations.
The inspection report is 57 pages long and provides a lot of detail about how the 29 recommendations that fall specifically to LFB are being implemented. It is not an easy read, but to an extent that reinforces the point that this is not a simple ask. Operational response is complex and changing policy and procedure is not an overnight job.
Revisiting the analysis of the Phase 1 report in the December 2019 issue of FIRE is a salutary reminder of how much needed to be done and the weight of obligation that fell on LFB. This article looks at elements of the latest HMICFRS report to understand the developments since then.
London’s Grenfell Response
Much has changed in London since Sir Martin Moore-Bick published his Grenfell Tower Inquiry Phase 1 report in December 2019. Andy Roe is now London Fire Commissioner and he has introduced new senior level posts of Transformation Director, Independent Operational Assurance Adviser and most recently an interim Director of Communications (an upgrade of the head of communications function). And of course, we are still in the throes of a global pandemic that has challenged fire and rescue services as much as any part of our world.
Deputy Mayor for Fire and Resilience, Fiona Twycross AM, confirmed progress on implementing the Grenfell recommendations at the December 16 Q&A with senior LFB officers. She said: “Out of the 29 recommendations directed specifically at the LFB, four of these have been completed in full. This includes delivering an enhanced operational policy on gathering building risk information, equipping firefighters with smoke hoods to help evacuate residents, and upgrading technology on command units. A further 17 recommendations will be implemented by March  and we hope some of these will be implemented before then.”
To assist this work, LFB has a transformation fund of £7.7 million and the London Mayor, through his scrutiny and oversight role, publishes a progress report each month. The January 2021 report anticipated some of HMI’s findings and in particular the concerns about slippages in the delivery timetable.
“The demands on LFB and restrictions in other types of activity (due to Covid-19) mean that some of the actions set out in previous versions of this report will not be delivered according to expected timescales. The Mayor is clear that improvements required by the Grenfell Tower Inquiry must continue to be delivered with any delay minimised as far as possible.”
HMI Matt Parr was effusive about the notable change since his last inspection. He said to reporters: “There is a palpable sense of urgency over the last year and the desire to get on with it. I see this in the leadership team, and it filters throughout the organisation.”
But at the same time, he also said there is still much to be done. “I am encouraged by LFB’s progress, especially over the last year, and we know the Covid-19 pandemic has caused some unavoidable delays. However, there is still a very long way to go – particularly on training for fires in high-rise residential buildings. As it stands, we are not clear how this work will be completed.”
LFB is a large organisation with considerable resources at its disposal, but it is not a programme or change specialist. It needs to buy these resources in to help it manage the activities that will bring about the systemic, long-term change that Sir Martin Moore-Bick describes in his report. The inspectors reinforced this point: ‘The amount of change to address the recommendations is significant’.
It is important to put in place the right governance and programme management processes to manage the volume of work required to underpin the long-term changes expected from implementing the recommendations. For example, the report cites staff who told the inspectors that they found the action plan for work on the recommendations to be unwieldy and difficult to use in its spreadsheet format. The report also points out that there were no senior responsible owners for the actions and as a result there was no way to know what is being delivered and who is accountable when progress is slow.
To remedy this, HMI found: ‘Experts in programme management have been brought in to support the improvement process. LFB is appointing consultants to help it better manage different work plans (called a ‘portfolio management approach’) and improve the skills of leaders to manage organisational change’.
The issue of assurance is concerning in the report. The HMICFRS press release puts this succinctly: ‘The Inspectorate said LFB needs to better coordinate its plans to act on the Inquiry’s recommendations, so both LFB and the public are reassured that if an incident as catastrophic as Grenfell were to happen again, the response would be much better’.
One of the ways of improving this situation has been to appoint an independent operational assurance adviser who will tell the Commissioner on a monthly basis how effective LFB is in its operations and how the Grenfell-related changes are being implemented. This is a high-profile role requiring technical expertise, strategic insight and the ability to instil confidence at all levels of LFB. The appointment of the former Chief Fire Officer for the Scottish Fire and Rescue Service, Alasdair Hay, to this post was confirmed in August 2020.
The London Fire Commissioner talked about Hay during the Q&A session on December 16, noting: “He has enormous experience and is unafraid to challenge me.” He went on expand on what Hay had already discovered since arriving at LFB.
“He has referred to the challenge of effectively communicating with such a large and disparate organisation, and doing so with clarity, and a focus on some key messages rather than trying to do everything at once. He has talked about the challenge of leadership and ensuring that people come on the journey with us. I think he has already provided me with a very clear-sighted view of where he sees the problem, and, perhaps most usefully, because of his experience tackling similar challenges in Scotland, some thoughts on how we might consider addressing them.”
Responding to high-rise fires and the safe evacuation of residents is central to the Grenfell recommendations. LFB has changed its policies on both high-rise firefighting and fire safety guidance (known as FSG) given to residents who are directly affected by a fire.
More Effective Response
The revised FSG policy creates a new FSG co-ordinator role in the control room and there is now a dedicated FSG radio channel. Along with changes to command and control systems to make FSG information clear both in terms of its display but also how it is understood, the inspectors concluded: ‘The changes are well designed and will make LFB’s response more effective’.
The control room is also the focus for two new technology innovations. The first, 999eye, is relatively new to LFB although it has been around for a while having originally been developed by West Midlands Fire Service and now marketed by Capita. It allows a caller to share video or images from an incident directly with a control room operator. This increases situational awareness for the control room operator to share with those involved at the incident or who on their way, enabling members of the public to provide vital early information.
The other innovation in London, although again not new in itself, is a push to adopt the Multi Agency Incident Transfer (MAIT) protocol. This is how control rooms share information electronically about an incident without having to use the phone. LFB uses Vision for its command and control system and MAIT is being integrated into version V4.32. HMI said: ‘It is planned that all London’s emergency services will be able to share incident information by autumn 2021’.
Both of these changes and MAIT in particular will go a long way to address Grenfell recommendations that criticised the way that the control room operated on the night of the fire. Assistant Commissioner Jonathan Smith is also a relatively new appointment (previously working in Hertfordshire) and is in charge of control for LFB. He frequently tweets about the work of the control room and in particular the training his staff are undertaking to ingrain the new procedures. @acsmith978 is well worth a follow on Twitter.
The inspectors also looked at how LFB assesses risk and understands how high-rise buildings are constructed. The ongoing scrutiny by the Grenfell Inquiry of the products used in the construction of the tower is a continual reminder of how important it is for firefighters to know what hazards they may face at an incident. ‘We found that staff are now more aware of the risk of fire taking hold in external walls of high-rise buildings and are better at recognising it when it happens’.
LFB updated its policy, Management of Operational Risk Information (PN800), in June 2020. This includes premises risk assessment (PRA) and a scoring system that reflects the existence of a ‘waking watch’ as part of a building’s evacuation strategy or the presence of known combustible cladding. With a score of 750+, these buildings will be visited four times a year (one per watch).
One Risk Solution
There is an interesting reference in the report to an LFB project called ‘One Risk Solution’. The intention of this project is to bring together risk information about buildings into one place: operational risk, fire safety inspection data and home fire safety information. On the face of it, this seems entirely sensible to have a place-based system built around the UPRN that allows one building to be seen from many different perspectives. HMI write that the project specification is delayed and that it is uncertain when a supplier might be engaged to carry out the work.
As a result of this and wider work on operational risk, HMI concluded: ‘We welcome the greater focus given to assessing risks at high-rise residential buildings and providing better information for firefighters and commanders attending incidents. LFB has shown that it has a strong grasp on this activity and effective assurance arrangements in place to support it’.
It would take many articles in FIRE to do justice to this report from HMICFRS, which should be read in full by all fire and rescue services. The importance of the work being done in London but also in other fire and rescue services to improve operational response in all its complexities, cannot be underestimated. The totality of this effort will lead to long-term systemic change that will have lasting effects on both firefighter and public safety.
The problem is of course that the places where they co-exist continue to be found wanting, as spending any time listening to the current phase of the Grenfell Inquiry demonstrates. The incredible #endourcladdingscandal campaign continues, rightly, to shout about the fire safety risks in buildings that were not even under consideration when the Inquiry started its work. The improvements that will come as a result of implementing the Phase 1 recommendations will have far reaching impacts well beyond those who live in buildings like Grenfell.
As LFB readies itself for the next modules of the Inquiry that will commence soon, it will do so knowing that the manufacturers of the products that cloaked Grenfell Tower have revealed their shortcomings and poor practices. Their evidence presents a stark contrast with the testimony of the London firefighters who spoke before them and will echo loudly as LFB once more provides evidence to help the Inquiry do its important work.