I know it’s really too early to jump to conclusions about the tragedy at Grenfell tower, but I’m so angry about it, I just had to write down something about an event that may turn out to be the worst fire related disaster since Bradford stadium, or maybe even worse.
Recent events at Grenfell tower have brought the lives of those living in high-rise, often council-owned buildings into sharp focus. Should it be a requirement for the council to ensure the use of the best quality materials and to application of the highest standards of construction or is there some acceptable compromise, occasioned perhaps by the cost savings to be gained by the use of less than optimum standards?
Should the answer to the question be different, depending on whether we are referring to aspects of the building’s construction which affect the structure of the building and the safety of the occupants or aspects which are merely cosmetic. Whereas it may be acceptable not to specify gold taps costing £500 each in favour of bog-standard chrome-plated ones at a fiver each, is it still acceptable not to use external fireproof cladding costing £5 sq. metre in favour of a non-fireproof alternative, costing £1 less?
Of course, other questions need to be asked. Should all multi-story apartment blocks have sprinklers fitted, whether specified at the time of construction or not? A local authority spokesman pointed out that few multi-storey blocks in any area had sprinklers retrofitted. Is that an acceptable excuse? Should all multi-story buildings be required to have smoke detectors and fire alarms and should these be regularly checked and serviced? All multi-story buildings are already built using a cell structure, helping to prevent the spread of fires from one area to another. Should it be a requirement that any internal structural or cosmetic alteration does not impair this ability?
Events at Grenfell have highlighted all too clearly the answers to these questions and the dangers of not paying attention. Fire retardant cladding was available, but was rejected at Grenfell in favour of a cheaper alternative. This helped a relatively small fire on a lower floor become an inferno engulfing the whole building in a very short period of time.
Sprinklers would have delayed the spread of the fire, or even extinguished it before it could really take hold. A serious fire in a similarly clad building in Dubai, but with sprinklers fitted, involved no loss of life. Properly functioning smoke detectors and fire alarms would have warned residents more quickly, allowing more of them to escape. One resident who did escape said he only knew there was a fire when he heard passers-by calling out.
Stories following the recent refurbishment of the building suggested that the alterations had not been carried out with safety in mind. They talk of holes in the walls, partially blocked doorways and poorly place pipework, all of which point to a poor standard of construction and a lack of a proper inspection regime. Just a rushed low-cost job?
Some escapees talk of smoke coming into the flats, completely against the principle construction goal in multi-storey buildings of isolating a fire and preventing its spread. How could this happen in a properly constructed multi-storey block.
But any impairment in the building’s structure would have had a tragic knock-on effect. In case of fire reported in a properly constructed and maintained multi-story block, a fire officer’s advice to anyone calling 999 will always be to stay in the flat, as that’s not only the safest place to be with a functioning cell structure inhibiting the spread of the fire, but also it prevents emergency services’ access to the building being restricted by escaping residents. Unfortunately, in Grenfell’s case, with its apparently compromised structure and non-fire-resistant cladding, this may turn out to have been the wrong advice.
Still to come are details of the decisions taken by the those involved in the construction and refurbishment of the building. Who specified the cladding? Who designed and oversaw the internal refurbishment? If the work was as bad as has been suggested, and if many complaints were made by the residents, why did it not prompt some form of immediate action. What part did the local authority play in this. When Kensington and Chelsea are one of the richest areas in the country with many properties worth £millions, why was money not available to carry out proper work. Was the local authority starved of cash by Government or did they just choose to concentrate their resources in richer, and more vocal, areas, ignoring those who they can afford to ignore, at least until an event like this
All in all, this has the look of a tragedy which was both man-made and avoidable, but only after a more detailed investigation will the real truth come out, f indeed the real truth ever comes out. Unfortunately, following other similar fire events, politicians have been happy enough to sympathise with the bereaved and make promises about how lessons will be learned, without there ever being any real change. As sympathy fades, cash becomes king, and no one is prepared to spend the money necessary to make the improvements. Perhaps, if we had a pound for every time a politician has said lessons will be learned, we would have enough money to carry them out.