There has been much ado recently about criticisms made by Grenfell Inquiry Chair Martin Moore-Bick of the leadership of the London Fire Brigade in general and of Commissioner Dany Cotton in particular in his much delayed summing-up of Phase 1 of the Inquiry. Although these criticisms are confined to just a few short passages of the report, which is nearly 900 pages long, they have been seized upon by the news media generally and by some elements within the Lancaster West community, notably Grenfell United, the leadership of which has villified Commissioner Cotton in no uncertain terms, and called for her resignation. According to the Moore-Bick Report:
“The London Fire Brigade’s preparation and planning was gravely inadequate. LFB incident commanders had received no training in how to recognise the need for an evacuation or how to organise one and there was no contingency plan for the evacuation of Grenfell Tower. The failure to train firefighters in how best to fight cladding fires was the inevitable consequence of the LFB’s institutional failure to inform its firefighters about the risks they present. Notwithstanding their experience none had received any training on the risks posed by exterior cladding or the techniques to be deployed in fighting fires involving cladding. None had received any training in when to withdraw ‘stay put’ advice or how best to evacuate residents from high-rise buildings and (their) training did not adequately prepare them for the nature, speed and ferocity of the fire they faced.”
“Hindsight” he concluded, “provides no answer to the significant systemic and operational failings revealed by the evidence. The bravery and commitment to duty shown by individual firefighters cannot mask or excuse the deficiencies in the command and conduct of operations. Once it was clear that the fire had spread out of control, that compartmentation had extensively failed, but that evacuation remained possible, a decision should have been made to evacuate the tower”
However, having issued such a harsh indictment of the LFB leadership, particularly in relation to the failure to suspend the ‘stay put’ policy in a timely fashion – apparently oblivious to the fact that this decision would need to have been made early and within a very narrow time window (between 01:26 and 01:40 according to expert witness Dr Barbara Lane), he then confessed that in arriving at these conclusions he had received no expert evidence to guide him and that a qualitative judgement on the approach of the LFB on the night might better be reserved for Phase 2 of the Inquiry. He also conceded that mass evacuation of the occupants of the tower “would no doubt have presented serious risks to the lives of both residents and firefighters, given the internal layout of the building and the absence of any kind of communication system.”
Nowhere in the report does he explain how such an “evacuation” could have been carried out with only 30 firefighters present at that time. There is substantial evidence provided to the Inquiry by survivors and firefighters inside the building that conditions for a mass rescue were extremely hazardous. According to the Fire Brigades Union, to have made such a decision at that juncture, “against every procedure and every prior element of training”, would have been a huge gamble.
How can it be fair then to criticise officers on scene when (according to the FBU) nobody – ministers, their advisors, chief officers or the National Fire Chiefs Council, had devised a credible mass evacuation/rescue strategy for high rise residential buildings.
So, if the alleged failings of the LFB command structure as described by Chairman Moore-Bick would, as he suggests, be more appropriately investigated in Stage 2 of the Inquiry what might such an investigation reveal?
In September 2019, nearly two months before the Moore-Bick report was published, the Fire Brigades Union published a report they had compiled that sheds an alternative light on the LFB failings outlined by Moore-Bick.
The FBU report describes an ideology of deregulation driven by central government that has, they claim, blighted efforts to improve the living conditions of millions for a number of years. During that time central government has failed to provide the resources necessary for the fire service to adequately manage risk. Ministers have promoted a fire safety regime that was not fit for purpose and that ultimately failed catastrophically at Grenfell Tower on 14 June 2017.
According to the same report the guidance in Approved Document B is not specific enough to provide residents or firefighters with the clarity needed for when ‘stay put’, phased evacuation or simultaneous evacuation are required; how to transition from one policy to another; and how to achieve a safe outcome, particularly in circumstances like Grenfell with a rapidly escalating fire and just one narrow escape stairway, no central alarm and no central communications system.
The FBU report also reveals that since the 1980s the management of risk has squeezed out firefighters, as well as other workers and their trade union representatives who practise fire safety as their profession. This expertise has mostly been substituted with management consultants, industry lobbyists and chief fire officers. These agents have operated within a political climate that has emphasised the need for reducing regulation. This has been driven by central government which therefore bears ultimate responsibility for the failings at Grenfell Tower. Those who made the pivotal decisions at Westminster (and arguably at RBKC and KCTMO) need to be held to account and fundamental change is needed in the regimes covering fire safety, fire policy, housing and the fire and rescue service.
According to the FBU fire and rescue services have been decimated by central government funding cuts, sometimes supplemented by local fire authority cuts. One in five frontline firefighter jobs has been cut since 2010. At least a quarter of fire inspectors have also been cut, along with the number of inspections and the time spent on them, contributing to a culture of non-compliance with fire regulation. Weaker enforcement bodies mean some firms and other actors get away with unsafe practices.
Add to this the malign influence of Boris Johnson who, while serving as Mayor of London, took an axe to the London Fire Service, closing twelve fire stations. Firemen involved in regulation and inspection were particularly impacted as Johnson effectively reduced the number of staff involved in operational regulation enforcement by half and total fire brigade staff by a quarter.
The National Audit Office estimated that between 2010-11 and 2015-16 central funding to local fire and rescue services was reduced by an average of 28% in real terms, with reductions between 26% and 39% in different authorities over that period. The acceleration of deregulation along with savage austerity cuts to funding has had direct implications for the fire service. The full FBU report can be downloaded here;
One has to wonder in what universe it would be appropriate to hold the LFB accountable for its perceived failings when considered against this background of the insidious erosion of its funding and staffing and the undermining of its ability to upgrade the essential equipment and resources on which it would ultimately depend to function as a competent fire service when confronted with the unprecedented challenges faced on the night of the Grenfell Fire. And let us not forget that this is all before we have even begun to consider the proximate causes of the lethal inferno that occurred that night, starting with the totally botched refurbishment of the Tower and all those who were responsible for it.
There is another glaring inconsistency that is particularly noteworthy in relation to Moore-Bick’s indictment of the LFB. As stated in the opening paragraph of this post, that indictment is confined to just a few short passages in the report. However, in the very same report Moore-Bick states multiple times throughout the document that the cladding system encasing Grenfell Tower was the fundamental cause of the inferno that took so many innocent lives that night.
“It is clear” he states, “that the use of combustible materials in the external wall of Grenfell Tower, principally in the form of the ACM rainscreen cladding, but also in the form of combustible insulation, was the reason why the fire spread so quickly to the whole of the building……a number of aspects of the design of the refurbishment and the choice of materials will need to be examined, (including) the choice of ACM panels with a polyethylene core, the choice of combustible insulation and extruded polystyrene window infill panels, a design which incorporated many vertical channels and the decision to incorporate an architectural crown composed of ACM fins, all of which made a major contribution to the extent of the fire…”
He couldn’t have been more clear in his denunciation of the totally botched refurbishment of Grenfell Tower – and yet he stopped short of naming those responsible (unlike his indictment of the LFB which he named and indicted without hesitation). Those responsible for the botched refurbishment, he decided, must await investigation in Stage 2 of the Inquiry before they can even be named.
At this point let us not forget that he had already conceded that the passing of judgement on the London Fire Brigade might also be better reserved for Phase 2 – even as he rushed to judgement and condemned them anyway. One has to wonder what his intent might have been in so doing. Might it have been to use them as red meat for the baying mob and as a convenient scapegoat for those who should really have been held responsible?
In his denunciation of the LFB leadership Moore-Bick also condemned Commissioner Cotton personally, taking particular issue with a couple of poorly worded statements she made in her evidence to the Inquiry. One of these statements he singled out for special criticism.
“Quite apart from its remarkable insensitivity to the families of the deceased and to those who had escaped from their burning homes with their lives, the Commissioner’s evidence that she would not change anything about the response of the LFB on the night, even with the benefit of hindsight, only serves to demonstrate that the LFB is an institution at risk of not learning the lessons of the Grenfell Tower fire.” (Inquiry Phase 1 Report Volume 4)
Taking his criticisms of Commissioner Cotton in reverse order, Moore-Bick’s warning that “..the LFB is an institution at risk of not learning the lessons of the Grenfell Tower fire” stands very little scrutiny, not least because shortly after the Grenfell disaster in 2017 Commissioner Cotton had established ‘The Grenfell Tower Investigation and Review Team’, with a remit “to understand the circumstances of the incident and what happened on the night, identify lessons to be learnt, and when all the evidence is available, provide an unfettered and comprehensive evaluation of the Brigade’s response to this unprecedented incident. This investigation has and will continue to work alongside the statutory processes being undertaken by the Grenfell Tower Inquiry and Metropolitan Police Service (MPS), whilst acknowledging the primacy of those processes.”
The Review team has already made a number of recommendations which the LFB has acted on, such as improved training and firefighting equipment, including extended height aerial appliances with turntable ladders up to 64 metres, of which there were none available anywhere in Greater London on the night of the fire. Moore-Bick has, of course, been fully briefed on these improvements so his criticism of the LFB’s inability to learn from Grenfell appears, at best, to be misguided and at worst disingenuous:
Dany Cotton is London Fire Brigade’s first female Commissioner and is one of the most senior fire officers in Europe. She joined the Brigade at the age of 18 and was just one of 30 female firefighters in London. Within 12 years, she had become the UK’s first female station officer and from there, steadily rose through the ranks to become London Fire Commissioner on 1st January 2017.
Throughout her career she has attended some of London’s most significant incidents. Just three months into the job, she attended the Clapham Junction rail disaster where 33 people died and she has also led crews at the Cutty Sark fire in 2007 and a 40 fire engine blaze near the Olympic Stadium on the evening of the London 2012 closing ceremony.
She has received a number of accolades. She was made Public Servant of the Year in 2002, was the first woman to be awarded the Queen’s Fire Service medal in January 2004 and won the Most Influential Woman in Fire award in 2015. She is National Chair of Women in the Fire Service, Strategic Advisor to the Local Government Association and National Counter Terrorism lead. It should be noted that her appointment as Commissioner of the LFB on 1 January 2017 occurred less than six months before the night of the Grenfell Fire.
If one accepts the detail of the FBU report above concerning the ill-conceived deregulation by government of building and fire safety systems, the privatisation of building control and fire safety inspection regimes and the savage cuts imposed on LFB staffing, resources and funding, then one must also seriously consider how much reform and improvement Commissioner Cotton could reasonably have been expected to accomplish in so little time and with so little local or national government support.
As for her perceived “…remarkable insensitivity to the families of the deceased and to those who had escaped from their burning homes with their lives”, perhaps it would be fairer and make better sense to judge Commissioner Cotton on her career record and on a more comprehensive reading of the evidence she gave to the Inquiry. Below I have quoted her at length in four paragraphs from her written submission to the Inquiry:
“Even though there may be a risk to firefighters, while we believed there was saveable life, we would continue to commit crews into the tower to fire fight and conduct rescue operations. The imperative was to save human life. The right to life is a basic function of human rights and we were servicing that human right. However, for the first time ever, I had an overwhelming continuous feeling of anxiety, of responsibility in committing firefighters into a building where I could not guarantee their safety. I’ve never felt that way before, and I have been in charge at hundreds of large scale operational incidents. It was a huge responsibility to know how many people were in there and that we were just going to keep committing and committing, even though there was a potential risk, but that was the decision we took.”
“Something we had to bear in mind was that it was a terribly narrow staircase and that was then being compromised further by the presence of hoses, taking up space and forming a trip hazard, and by firefighters in breathing apparatus. We were trying to rescue people in effectively quite a small space so the plan was also about getting reasonable numbers of resources in there, in a timely fashion to get to those floors and to make best efforts to try and get people out. We also had to consider access and egress from the tower, not just for firefighters but also for those casualties we were bringing out. I was aware that there was more than one dead person on the stairs and that it was very difficult to get passed them. It just seemed like we had been doing it forever; forever committing crews in, forever helping people coming out… So we had to consider how we do that safely, how we then take them to the triage point for the Ambulance Service to then take them, and then make sure we’re recording who’s coming out at the same time.”
“I was concerned by the number of people being evacuated from the tower who were walking the streets and who appeared not to have been swept up and in the care of Police or the Local Authority. I had spoken to a number of people when I’d walked back to the command unit, and they were wandering round in a complete daze having come out of the building, clearly in shock. I was really concerned that nobody had put them somewhere, not least of all for identification purposes. The Local Authority Liaison Officer from Kensington and Chelsea was there but they were completely over-whelmed by the volume of how much needed doing and how many people there were.”
“It was overwhelming to see how many people had been committed into the fire and had clearly worked so hard. This is where I encountered several firefighters in floods of tears. A number of firefighters, not known to me, had physically burst into tears in my arms. I’ve never ever had that on the fire ground. Generally, firefighters will see a traumatic event, such as a fatality, but they will carry on dealing with the incident I’ve never seen people actually in tears on the Fire Ground like that, I’ve never experienced such an overwhelming volume of people absolutely physically drained and exhausted and in visible shock from what they had seen and experienced.”
Commissioner Cotton has been criticised by Chairman Moore-Bick, by the mass media and by some elements within the Grenfell Community, notably by members of Grenfell United (especially their leadership), who continue to excoriate her for what has been described by Moore-Bick as her “remarkable insensitivity” and by GU for what amounts to nothing less than dereliction of duty. Indeed some have called, not just for her resignation, but for her prosecution. As recently as 13th November ITV News reported on a meeting GU recently had with London Mayor Sadiq Khan in which they repeated their demands for her resignation. They are clearly continuing to conduct a ruthless personal vendetta against her and against the senior leadership of the London Fire Brigade which appears to be, not just misguided, but downright vindictive.
From my reading of the four paragraphs above, quoted from her written evidence, Commissioner Cotton appears to me to be anything but ‘insensitive‘. On the contrary she strikes me as a sensitive, compassionate and empathic woman who takes her duties and responsibilities very seriously and cared deeply, on the night of the Grenfell Fire, for the welfare of her fire crews and for both the victims and the survivors of the fire.
When she said she would have changed nothing that the LFB had done on the night I don’t believe she meant any disrespect but was just trying to be realistic and to pay tribute to her fire crews who had performed with such courage and tenacity in the face of overwhelming odds. I believe she was trying to say that was the best they could have done given the inadequate training and equipment they had to work with and the absolutely unprecedented nature of the fire which they had encountered and the odds that were stacked against them.
In closing I feel I should clarify one final detail. Those who have expressed a marked antipathy to Commissioner Cotton seek to hold her personally responsible for the delay, on the night, in suspending the ‘stay put’ policy. It is important that such people are properly informed and clearly understand that after 02.00am conditions in most lobbies and in the stairwell had deteriorated significantly so that by 02.20am they posed a risk to life. After 02.20am conditions had deteriorated even further, but not to such an extent as to create a completely impassable barrier to anyone who attempted to leave the building.(Moore-Bick executive summary 2.11)
Dany cotton was ‘on call’ that night for only the most serious of emergencies. She was duly called out but was unable to reach Grenfell Tower until 2.50am. The decision to suspend the ‘stay put’ policy had been taken at 2.47am, just minutes before her arrival. She therefore played no part in the decision making process related to the ‘stay put’ policy.
ENOUGH SCAPEGOATING… PLEASE!