Our last blog was a repost of a statement issued by Matt Wrack, the General Secretary of the Fire Brigades Union, in anticipation of a programme Channel 4 Dispatches were preparing to broadcast on Monday 18th February. Our repost attracted a lot of attention among our readers and garnered more than a thousand views during the following week.
We watched the programme (several times) in which Dispatches claimed to have uncovered new evidence suggesting that systemic failures in the London Fire Brigade had led to many people dying who could have survived. We saw no new evidence supporting this claim and we regard it as merely the latest in a long list of attempts to scapegoat the LFB with regard to the horrific events of June 2017 in which 72 of our friends, neighbours and loved ones died in an inferno from which, for far too many, there was no escape.
The programme was a pastiche of short clips composed of verbal evidence given on camera to the Grenfell Inquiry by LFB officers, who invariably spent long hours in the witness box facing a barrage of difficult, if not hostile, interrogation at the hands of counsel to the Inquiry. These clips were intercut with excerpts from emotive interviews with witnesses or survivors of the events of that night, generally expressing their anger, frustration and bewilderment at the failure of the LFB to order an early mass evacuation of the tower.
The Dispatches programme ran for a mere half hour – not counting the mandatory commercial break in the middle – apparently in an ill-conceived attempt to answer in some meaningful way one of the most vexed and complex questions addressed in stage one of the Public Inquiry – whether the London Fire Brigade suffered a ‘systemic failure’ on the night of the Grenfell fire. In our view there is no question that there was a systemic failure, but we do not agree that the LFB or its officers should be held culpable for this.
In our view the Grenfell refurbishment that preceded the fire and created the conditions that led to it, is the true locus of a massive systemic failure that can be identified clearly at all levels of the project, from the planning to the financing to the design and to many, if not all, of the building contractors and numerous sub-contracters who succeeded, through a combination of incompetence and criminal negligence in turning a highrise block that had stood the test of time, having been safe to live in for many years, into a firetrap that was consumed in the worst inferno in living memory within months of its refurbishment.
We are not prepared to accept at this point the Dispatches claim that the London Fire Brigade suffered a systenic failure on the night of the Grenfell Fire. The failure of the LFB to cope with the situation that confronted them on that fateful night was preceded and precipitated by the complete failure of the building’s fire protection systems. In effect it was the failure of the building that caused the extremely high mortality and the Dispatches criticisms of the LFB are an unjustified attempt to scapegoat them for the loss of life and for the additional lives that the Dispatches team claims could have been saved had the LFB not failed in their duty on that night
The Grenfell fire was unprecedented in its ferocity and the speed with which it engulfed the entire tower and we know that the LFB were ill-equipped and insufficiently trained, due to major budget cuts, year on year, by central government that had significantly degraded their ability to cope under normal conditions, let alone the unprecedentedly extreme conditions they faced on that night. This was further complicated by the fact that the fire crews had not been trained in the logistics or hazards involved in the evacuation of a densely occupied multi-storey residential block that was rapidly becoming consumed in by far the worst highrise fire they had ever encountered.
In any case any claim of systemic failure by the LFB hangs entirely on the failure, between approximately 1am and 2.30am, of senior LFB officers to order the abandonment of the ‘stay put’ policy in favour of a strategy of search and rescue and self evacuation wherever possible. This matter has been the subject of intense scrutiny by the Public Inquiry. No conclusions have yet emerged from that source so we must await publication of the Inquiry’s findings. Meanwhile we can only speculate about the alleged failures of the LFB as we don’t yet have the evidence necessary to make properly informed judgements.
In fact the decision to abandon the ‘stay put’ policy, opting instead for mass evacuation, was by no means as simple or straightforward for those responsible as the LFB’s critics woud have us believe. It carried with it a host of additional risks and dangers that could not be predicted or quantified and might themselves have led to disastrous consequences. Nor must we forget that this whole crisis had unfolded within a very short timescale, between 1am approximately, when the first fire crews arrived on scene, and 2.30am approximately when the decision to abandon the ‘stay put’ policy was finally taken.
We may reasonably assume that it would have been considered premature to make such a drastic decision during that first hour, but according to the evidence submitted to the Inquiry by expert witness Dr Barbara Lane, the ‘stay put’ strategy had effectively failed by 1.26am. The ‘defend in place’ firefighting strategy upon which it relied had also failed and the LFB had no effective means of attacking the fierce external fire which was the only firefighting strategy that was then left to them.
We also know that, by this time, much of the stairwell and many of the lobbies were smoke logged. Who could have predicted the rapidity or ferocity with which this sequence of events would occur? Nor is it any wonder that the senior officers charged with making the crucial life and death decisions, who did not have the benefit of the forensic evidence now available to Dr Lane and other experts, did not or could not, react with the speed and hindsight that the Dispatches team would clearly now expect and demand of them.
The extended interview with Marcio Gomes, broadcast near the end of the programme is, in our view, a crucially important part of the whole Dispatches programme. It clearly reveals the terrible dilemma Marcio and his family were confronted with, particularly when attempting to self evacuate, which they had tried on several occasions, only to be driven back by the thick black toxic smoke that confronted them every time they tried.
Strangely, the interview with Marcio is immediately preceded by a voiceover that is, in our view, the most reckless, misleading and preposterously flawed statement that the Dispatches team used as part of the foundation for their vendetta against the LFB:
” The Inquiry has heard that the whole tower could have been evacuated in seven minutes”.
Having arrived at this point of the narrative I have struggled to construct, I realise that there is no need for further argument from me. I already have in my possession a lengthy extract from the statement submitted by Dr Lane at the conclusion of phase one of the Inquiry. It describes in excruciating detail and in a far more articulate form than I could ever attempt, the conditions that existed in Grenfell Tower on that fateful night and that confronted all those inside the tower during that crucial hour when the building was lost. I will finish this blog by quoting the words of Dr Lane directly from her statement.
(CAUTION: Those still struggling to cope with the events of that night may find parts of what follows extremely painful reading.)
2.19.1 The conditions in the lobbies created intense fear amongst the residents which is likely to have affected the ability of many of them to leave their flat and descend the stair. As the fire progressed, and conditions worsened in the lobbies, but also directly on the external wall of their own flat, and adjacent flats, it was even more difficult to overcome this fear, even when they were eventually instructed to do so.
2.19.2 The evidence from the residents has emphasised this stark dilemma for them all too clearly.
2.19.3 The residents were left in conditions that appeared life threatening to them. So much so that even with a flame front entering their home or neighbour’s home, entering the staircase was believed to be a fatal option. In some cases, this belief appears to have seriously impacted their decision making process with respect to self-evacuation. It is my opinion that they required very specific advice tailored to overcome their fear of the lobby conditions, and to be informed, for example, that there was a concerted effort to meet and rescue people in the stairs.
2.19.4 Their experiences created a belief that entering the staircase was a fatal option, specifically:
2.19.5 For some residents they had already experienced conditions in the stairs and considered them to be life threatening and so turned back
2.19.6 For other residents, they had entered the stairs or approached the stairs, and heard instructions not to go down the stairs at all, and again had turned back.
2.19.7 Many residents had been told it was safer not to self-evacuate for up to an hour, and the change seemed to overwhelm those that ultimately stayed in place.
2.19.8 There were substantial signals of danger to residents, and to firefighters. This included large quantities of thick smoke impacting sight and breathing immediately outside flat entrance doors, intense heat outside flat entrance doors, heat and smoke within the stair itself; rapidly advancing fire and smoke entering flats from the external wall, and ultimately horrific and rapidly increasing numbers of fires for the residents to attempt to escape away from within their own flats.
2.19.9 It is my opinion that the conditions created difficult, and at times life threatening conditions, for the LFB. The conditions greatly restricted their ability to implement their standard processes and procedures, regarding firefighting, once the fire had spread beyond Flat 16.
2.19.10 The LFB appear to have stopped attempting to fight the multiple and ever increasing flat fires and focused on attempting rescue activities.
2.19.11 The conditions caused the requirement for a scale of rescue that overwhelmed the LFB’s standard rescue processes. The details of this are being addressed by other experts to the Inquiry.
2.19.12 Because of the external wall fire, a complex building fire occurred, and so the single escape stairs and its lobbies became the single most important life safety feature. As I explain further in later sections, I have considerable concern as to the standards of fire safety provision in the lobbies and the stair, whilst acknowledging the extreme and primary hazard the external wall presented.
2.19.13 The failure of this life safety feature meant that after 01:40, and particularly after 02:00, worsening conditions limited the ability for rescue to occur, and created more and more barriers, or perceived barriers, for residents to overcome in order to safely self-evacuate. Ultimately, 71 persons were not able to do so.
2.19.14 The timing of this decision is relevant to my work because the active and passive fire protection measures are required to provide a safe working environment for the fire and rescue services. However, their failure cannot be considered in isolation, because the LFB continued to invest in rescue after the building safety condition failed.
2.19.15 I consider the Stay Put strategy required from the Building condition, to have effectively failed by 01 :26; the Defend in Place fire fighting upon which it relies had also failed – there was no ability to extinguish the external fire early as became required.
2.19.16 Therefore, there was a need for the LFB to recognise this building failure by 01:26, when the fire had spread up to Level 23 from Level 4, and to recognise the impact this building failure was having, and would continue to have, on standard fire fighting and rescue processes and procedures.
2.19.17 There was a particular need to recognise this failure by the time the major incident was declared at 02:06, in order to improve the means available to residents to self-evacuate, as this had now become the most likely method to mitigate the risk to their lives.
2.19.18 There is a need to recognise now, if interventions could have been made before 02:06, and then before 02:35, in order to prevent such a tragedy happening in the future.
2.19.19 An important topic also for investigation is residents who could not evacuate without assistance (residents who could not walk down stairs). I will incorporate the final numbers of persons requiring assistance when that evidence is finalised. There was no active facility available to them for self evacuation (this is dealt with in detail in Section 15, 16 and 18 of my report”