Fire Department Risk Assessment

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The Grenfell Tower fire occurred on 14 June 2017, at a 24-storey block of public housing flats in North Kensington, London, England. It is a skyscraper fire with a high death toll, with 30 confirmed by 16 June, which is expected to rise significantly. More people, up to 76, are still reported missing. The dead count may rise to 106 victims, including those already confirmed, but no further official information has been released.

The fire started shortly before 1 a.m. local time (UTC+1). Hundreds of firefighters and 45 fire engines were involved in efforts to control the fire, and later attempted to control pockets of fire on the higher floors after most of the rest of the building had been gutted. Residents of surrounding buildings were evacuated out of concerns that the tower could collapse, though the building was later determined to still be structurally sound.

It is possible that up to 600 people were in the 120 one- and two-bedroom flats of the block at the time of the fire. At least 30 people were killed, and 76 are reported missing. Sixty-five were rescued by firefighters. Seventy-four people were confirmed to be in five hospitals across London, 17 of whom were in a critical condition. Ongoing fires on the upper floors and fears of structural collapse hindered the search and recovery effort. On 16 June police said that they did not believe they would find more survivors, that it was likely that some victims would never be identified, and that the final death toll may exceed 60, with media sources stating that the deaths may reach 100.

The cause of the fire is not yet known. The extraordinary speed at which the fire spread is widely believed to have been aided by the building's recently added exterior cladding, which appeared to contain highly flammable material. The Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, criticised the safety instructions; in particular, those instructions telling people to stay in their flats until rescued by fire services. This advice proved fatal to residents who heeded it, as it relies on the assumption that fire services can contain a fire within the building's interior, which is impossible if the fire is spreading rapidly via the building's exterior.

Since 2013, the residents' organisation, Grenfell Action Group, had repeatedly expressed concern about fire safety, and had warned the block's management in November 2016 that only a catastrophic fire would finally force them to treat fire precautions and maintenance of fire-related systems properly. On 16 June 2017, Prime Minister Theresa May announced a £5 million fund for victims of the fire, while local residents staged a sit-in at Kensington and Chelsea Town Hall.


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Background

Grenfell Tower

Grenfell Tower is located in North Kensington, on the western edge of Inner London, in a mainly working-class housing complex surrounded by affluent neighbourhoods. The 24-storey tower block, home to a diverse population of many nationalities, ethnicities and faiths, was designed in 1967 in the then-common brutalist style by Clifford Wearden and Associates, with Kensington & Chelsea Council approving its construction in 1970 as part of phase one of the Lancaster West redevelopment project. Contractors A E Symes, of Leyton London, commenced construction in 1972, with the building completed in 1974. It was built under the council housing system. The 220-foot-10-inch (67.30 m) tall building contained 120 one- and two-bedroom flats, (six apartments per floor on twenty of the twenty-four stories, with the other four being used for non-residential purposes), housing up to 600 people, and it was renovated in 2015-16. The original lead architect for the building, Nigel Whitbread, said in 2016 that the tower had been designed with attention to strength following the Ronan Point collapse of 1968 "and from what I can see could last another hundred years."

The tower was managed by Kensington and Chelsea Tenant Management Organisation (KCTMO), the largest tenant management organisation (TMO) in England, on behalf of the Council. The TMO has a board comprising eight residents, four Council-appointed members, and three independent members.

Plans for renovation of the tower were publicised in 2012. Overseen by Studio E Architects, the £8.7 million refurbishment, undertaken by Rydon Ltd, was completed in 2016. As part of the project, in 2015-2016, the concrete structure received new windows and new aluminium composite rainscreen cladding. Two types were used: Arconic's Reynobond, which consists of two, coil-coated, aluminium sheets that are fusion bonded to both sides of a polyethylene core; and Reynolux aluminium sheets. Beneath these, and fixed to the outside of the walls of the flats, was Celotex RS5000 PIR thermal insulation. The work was carried out by Harley Facades of Crowborough, East Sussex, at a cost of £2.6 million.

The original contractor, Leadbitter, had been dropped by KCTMO because their price of £11.278 million was £1.6 million higher than the proposed budget for the refurbishment. The contract was put out to competitive tender. Rydon's bid was £2.5 million less than Leadbitter's.

In the hours following the fire, one of the companies involved in the refurbishment, ventilation company WITT UK, removed all references to the refurbishment from its website. They had been responsible for the smoke ventilation and extraction system fitted to the building during the refit.

Safety concerns

There were significant safety concerns prior to the fire, with criticism levelled against the council for fire safety and building maintenance.

In a July 2014 Grenfell Tower regeneration newsletter, the KCTMO instructed residents to stay in the flat in case of a fire ("Our longstanding 'stay put' policy stays in force until you are told otherwise") and claimed that the front doors for each unit could survive a fire for up to 30 minutes.

The May 2016 newsletter had a similar message, adding that it was on the advice of the Fire Brigade:

The smoke detection systems have been upgraded and extended. The Fire Brigade has asked us to reinforce the message that, if there is a fire which is not inside your own home, you are generally safest to stay put in your home to begin with; the Fire Brigade will arrive very quickly if a fire is reported.

Following the fire, Kensington and Chelsea Borough Council leader Nicholas Paget-Brown claimed that there had not been a majority of residents of Grenfell Tower in favour of installing sprinklers. He also claimed that if they had been installed, it would have delayed the refurbishment and been more disruptive for the residents. However, ITV business editor Joe Hills stated that he had been told that the installation of sprinklers had not even been discussed. The British Automatic Fire Sprinkler Association said that at an average cost of £1,150 per flat, it would have cost just £138,000 to install sprinklers to Grenfell Tower.

Grenfell Action Group

A residents' organisation, Grenfell Action Group (GAG), published a blog in which it highlighted major safety problems.

In 2013, the group published a 2012 fire risk assessment done by a TMO Health and Safety Officer that revealed significant safety violations. Firefighting equipment at the tower had not been checked for up to four years; on-site fire extinguishers had expired, and some had the word "condemned" written on them because they were so old. GAG documented its attempts to contact KCTMO management; they also alerted the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea (RBKC) Cabinet Member for Housing and Property but said they never received a reply from him or his deputy. In July 2013, Kensington and Chelsea Council threatened the group's blogger with legal action, accusing them of "defamatory behaviour" and "harassment".

In January 2016 GAG warned that people might be trapped in the building if a fire broke out, pointing out that the building had only one entrance and exit, and corridors that were allowed to fill with rubbish, such as old mattresses. GAG frequently cited other fires in tower blocks when it warned of the hazards at Grenfell.

In November 2016 GAG published online an article attacking KCTMO as an "evil, unprincipled, mini-mafia" and accusing the Borough Council of ignoring health and safety laws. GAG suggested that "only a catastrophic event will expose the ineptitude and incompetence of [KCTMO]". The group had also published articles criticising fire safety and maintenance practices at Grenfell Tower.


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Fire and casualties

The fire started early in the morning of 14 June 2017; the London Fire Brigade were first called to the fire at 00:54 BST (UTC+1). The fire reportedly began on the second floor but spread at a "terrifying rate" upward and to the other side of the building. A team of 250 firefighters from forty fire engines attempted to control the blaze and rescue people, the first responders arriving six minutes after the alarm. Firefighters entered the building to try to rescue people but reported they were hindered by the extreme heat.

Due to Ramadan, many observing Muslim residents were awake in the early hours for suhur, which enabled them to alert neighbours and help them to escape.

After three hours, the original crew of firefighters were replaced by a new crew. By sunrise, the firefighters were still battling the fire and trying to spray areas where people were seen trapped. The watching crowd were pushed back from the building because of falling debris. At 04:14, officials from the Metropolitan Police addressed the large crowd of onlookers and urgently instructed them to contact anyone they knew who was trapped in the building--if they are able to reach them via phone or social media--to tell them they must try to self-evacuate and not wait for the fire brigade. At 05:00, the building was still burning and severely damaged.

According to witnesses, there were people trapped inside, waving from windows for help, some holding children. There were two witness accounts of parents dropping their children down to people below, including a baby who was caught after being thrown from the ninth or tenth floor, and a small boy thrown from the fifth or sixth floor. There were also eyewitness reports that some people were jumping out. At least one person used knotted blankets to make a rope and escape from the burning building. Frequent explosions that were reported to be from gas lines in the building were heard.

The fire continued to burn on the tower's upper floors into the afternoon of 14 June. Firefighters were expecting to continue tackling the blaze for at least a further 24 hours. Although fears were expressed that the building could collapse, structural engineers determined that it was not in danger and that rescue teams could enter it to search for survivors and casualties.

Some riot police attended and held their shields horizontal above their heads to protect firefighters from falling large debris such as burning pieces of the cladding.

Casualties

By 05:00 BST, police reported that several people were being treated for smoke inhalation. The London Ambulance Service sent 20 ambulance crews to respond to the incident, and 100 police officers were on site. At 06:30, it was reported that 50 people had been taken to five hospitals: Chelsea and Westminster Hospital, King's College Hospital, Royal Free, St Thomas's, and St Mary's Hospital.

Around 09:30, London Fire Commissioner Dany Cotton reported that there were fatalities resulting from the fire, but she could not specify how many had been killed because of the size and complexity of the building. Cotton said:

This is an unprecedented incident. In my 29 years of being a firefighter, I have never ever seen anything of this scale.

At noon, the Metropolitan Police announced there were six people confirmed dead, and more than 70 in hospital, with 20 in critical condition. A large number of people were reported missing. The number of confirmed deaths was later increased to 12, and to 17 the following day.

On 16 June, police expressed that they did not believe they would find more survivors, that it was likely that some victims would never be identified due to the intensity of the fire, and that the final death toll may exceed 100. By noon on 16 June, the reported death toll had risen to 30, with over 70 reported missing. Out of those who had died, one had died in hospital. Twelve of those who had died had already been taken to the mortuary. However, many bodies still remained in the tower. Twenty-four people remained in hospital, with 12 in critical care.

Cause

The cause of the fire had not yet been determined as of 14 June. Several media outlets reported that it may have been caused by a faulty kitchen appliance. A fourth-floor resident told the media that it was his neighbour's fridge that caught fire around 1:00 am, and that they immediately began knocking on doors to alert people. He said that within half an hour the building was entirely engulfed in flames.

Whilst there was much criticism of the lack of fire sprinkler systems, Geoff Wilkinson, the building regulations columnist for the Architects' Journal, wrote in a comment on 14 June--before the cause was known ("we should avoid speculating")--that if a leaking gas riser or the cladding were at fault, sprinklers would have had little effect. He said he had seen extracts of a fire risk assessment and talk of combustible material stored in the common walkways, suggesting poor overall management.


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Criticism

Some residents said no fire alarms went off when the fire started. Residents said they were alerted to the fire only by people screaming for help or knocks on the door and not by a fire alarm. Others reported that they survived by ignoring the council's "stay put" policy: its directive instructing residents to remain in their flat in case of fire.

The London-wide Radical Housing Network, a citizens' action "group of groups... fighting for housing justice across London" of which the Grenfell Action Group is a member, said that the fire was "a horrific, preventable tragedy" that was the result of a "combination of government cuts, local authority mismanagement, and sheer contempt for council tenants and the homes they live in".

Dawn Foster, contributing editor on housing for The Guardian, posited that this was an "atrocity" that "was explicitly political" and "a symbol of the United Kingdom's deep inequality".

Grenfell Action Group warnings

After the fire, the Grenfell Action Group said that its years of complaints to warn the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea (RBKC), who own the building, and the Kensington and Chelsea Tenant Management Organisation, who "supposedly manage all social housing in RBKC on the Council's behalf", had been ignored, posting a message on its website:

Regular readers of this blog will know that we have posted numerous warnings in recent years about the very poor fire safety standards at Grenfell Tower and elsewhere in RBKC. ALL OUR WARNINGS FELL ON DEAF EARS and we predicted that a catastrophe like this was inevitable and just a matter of time.

The Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea threatened the Grenfell Action Group with legal action in 2013 in a bid to prevent the group criticising the council, claiming that such criticism amounted to "defamation and harassment".

Official policies and maintenance

Sadiq Khan, the Mayor of London, told BBC Radio 4 that he wanted answers about the fire safety condition at Grenfell Tower, and criticised the official "stay put" policy: "Thankfully residents didn't take that advice but fled". He added, "These are some of the questions that have to be answered. We have lots of people in London living in tower blocks... We can't have people's lives being put at risk because of bad advice or lack of maintenance."

The standard advice for people to stay put until rescued relies on the assumption that fire services can contain a fire within the building's interior; but this is impossible if the fire is spreading rapidly via the building's exterior.

Fire safety review shelved

Former Conservative Housing Minister Gavin Barwell faced criticism after it was revealed by Joe Watts in The Independent that he had delayed a fire safety review, and that a report into fire safety in tower blocks had been shelved for four years; Barwell had been due to meet the All-Party Parliamentary Fire Safety and Rescue Group to discuss the review in 2017, but the meeting was postponed after the snap general election was called, and he was appointed Downing Street Chief of Staff shortly afterwards. However, in his report Watts also noted that a review of fire safety regulations had been necessary, but not undertaken, for years before Barwell took office.

Labour MP John Healey called for an "independent, immediate review" of fire safety in tower blocks.

Cladding

Fire safety experts have speculated that the building's new external cladding was a possible cause of the rapid spread of the fire. Experts said the cladding essentially worked like a chimney in spreading the fire. The cladding could be seen burning and melting, causing additional speculation that it was not made of fire-resistant material. One resident said: "The whole one side of the building was on fire. The cladding went up like a matchstick."

There have been concerns about the dangers of external cladding since the early 1990s, notably following a fire at flats in Knowsley Heights, Liverpool in 1991. Several major fires in high-rise buildings that saw flames spreading up fa├žades at a devastatingly rapid rate have involved flammable cladding, among them the 2007 fire at The Water Club in Atlantic City, USA, the 2009 Lakanal House fire in Camberwell, London, the 2009 Beijing Television Cultural Center fire, China, the 2010 Wooshin Golden Suites fire in Marine City, Busan, South Korea, the 2012 Mermoz Tower fire in Roubaix, France, the 2014 Lacrosse Tower fire in Melbourne, Australia, and the 2015 fires in Dubai at The Marina Torch and The Address Downtown Dubai.

Records show that a contractor had been paid £2.6 million to install an "ACM rainscreen over-clad" during the recent refurbishment at Grenfell Tower. ACM stands for aluminium composite material, the combustibility of which depends on the choice of insulation core material. The product used was Reynobond, which is available with different types of core material - polyethylene, as reportedly used in Grenfell Tower (Reynobond PE), or a more fire-resistant material (Reynobond FR). The Reynobond cladding used in Grenfell Tower reportedly cost £24 per square metre for the fireproof versions, and £22 for the flammable version - a saving of 1 part in 12 on the price. According to the US-based manufacturer of Reynobond, the polyethylene version of the material is banned in the United States for use in buildings exceeding 40 feet (12 m) in height, because of the risk of spreading fire and smoke. The cladding also used an insulation foam product named Celotex RS5000. According to its datasheet, the polyisocyanurate product--charred pieces of which littered the area around Grenfell Tower after the fire--"will burn if exposed to a fire of sufficient heat and intensity".

Some residents had reported concern that the new cladding on the building was fixed onto it with wooden battens. There is widespread concern amongst residents and fire safety experts about the increasing use of timber, even in high-rise buildings, following a change to building regulations. It was reported that one reason for the new cladding was to improve the view for people living in the surrounding area. Similar cladding containing highly flammable insulation material is believed to have been installed on thousands of other high-rise buildings in countries including Britain, France, the UAE and Australia. This goes against advice published by the Centre for Window and Cladding Technology.

Sam Webb, the architect who investigated the Lakanal fire and who sits on the All Party Parliamentary Fire Safety & Rescue Group, said "This tragedy was entirely predictable, sadly." Webb also said, "I really don't think the building industry understands how fire behaves in buildings and how dangerous it can be. The government's mania for deregulation means our current safety standards just aren't good enough."

An application for demolition work at Grenfell Tower was deposited with the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea's Building Control department on 22 May 2014; no decision date had been entered as of 14 June 2017. By 4 September 2014 a building regulations notice for the recladding work was submitted to the authority, and marked with a status of "Completed - not approved". The use of a "Building Notice" building control application is used to remove the need to submit detailed plans and proposals to a building control inspector in advance, where the works performed will be approved by the inspector during the course of their construction. Building inspector Geoff Wilkinson remarked that this type of application is "wholly inappropriate for large complex buildings and should only be used on small, simple domestic buildings".


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Impact

Short-term

The fire's proximity to Latimer Road tube station caused a partial closure of London Underground's Hammersmith & City and Circle lines. The A40 Westway was closed in both directions. Bus routes were also being diverted.

People from surrounding buildings were evacuated due to concern that the tower might collapse.

Following the general election of 8 June, which resulted in no overall majority, a deal was expected to be announced between the Conservative Party and the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP). The DUP announced that the fire would delay the finalisation and announcement of an agreement between the Conservatives and DUP. According to the BBC, the announcement would not go ahead until the following week and thus could postpone discussions on Brexit that had been scheduled to take place.

The City of London cancelled the annual Mansion House Dinner, due to take place the day after the fire. Philip Hammond, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, had been due to address the event, but had said he would not do so following the fire.

Community response

People in the immediate area and from across London rallied to assist victims of the fire, in a response that saw people of all ages, faiths, races and social classes come together. Donations of food, water, toys, and clothes were made. Saint Clement Church on Treadgold Street and St James' Church, Norlands, in the Deanery of Kensington, provided shelter for people evacuated from their homes, as did nearby mosques and temples.

Nearby Queens Park Rangers F.C. have offered their Loftus Road venue as a relief centre and are accepting donations of food, drink and clothing from the local community, and other nearby football clubs Brentford F.C. and Fulham F.C. offered their stadiums as relief centres.

Criticism of the council

Emma Dent Coad, the newly elected Labour MP for Kensington (the constituency where the tower is located), blamed Kensington and Chelsea London Borough Council, saying that the fire was "entirely preventable" and that "I can't help thinking that poor quality materials and construction standards may have played a part in this hideous and unforgivable event." Dent Coad linked the council's intention to redevelop the area to the tragedy and said that displaced residents feared being sent far away from their neighbourhoods. Dent Coad is a member of the council and was formerly a board member of KCTMO. Residents around Grenfell Tower are not allowed in their homes for safety reasons. They are concerned that the council has told them nothing and fear they will be moved away from the area.

Criticism of fire safety building standards

Reinhard Ries, the Fire Chief in Frankfurt, Germany, was critical of lax fire regulations in the United Kingdom, contrasting the laws in Germany that ban flammable cladding and require segregated fire-stairs and firefighting lifts which can be used by the fire brigade and injured or disabled persons.


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Reactions

The Queen said that her 'thoughts and prayers' were with the affected families. Prime Minister Theresa May said she was saddened and called for a cross-government meeting, chaired by Nick Hurd, the new Police and Fire Minister, and a meeting with the Civil Contingencies Secretariat. London Mayor Sadiq Khan issued a statement saying he was devastated and also praising the emergency services on the scene. Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn said that questions needed to be answered about the fire. He praised the emergency services for their actions.

On 15 June, Theresa May made a private visit to Grenfell Tower. She did not meet any of the local populace, but spoke to London Fire Brigade commissioner Dany Cotton and other members of the emergency services. Her decision not to meet those affected by the fire quickly enough drew strong criticism. Conservative MP Tobias Ellwood stated that security concerns were the reason. BBC political editor Laura Kuenssberg commented that May's decision not to meet those affected by the fire might subsequently prove to have been a miscalculation as it may be interpreted as lacking empathy. The following day May made a visit to some of the victims at the Chelsea and Westminster Hospital. London Mayor Sadiq Khan was heckled when he visited the site. Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn visited a nearby community centre and spoke to some of the volunteers who were helping those affected by the fire. On the same day, Corbyn called for property to be made available, and seized from the rich if necessary, to provide homes for those displaced by the fire.

On 15 June, music producer Simon Cowell, who lives in the same borough as Grenfell Tower, announced plans to release a charity single to raise funds for the victims of the fire and their families. A "Night of Comedy" was also scheduled at the Hammersmith Apollo for 27 June in aide of those affected by the blaze.

On 16 June, the Queen and Duke of Cambridge visited the Westway Sports Centre, where a relief centre had been set up to help the victims of the fire. Theresa May visited a number of community leaders, local residents, victims and volunteers at St Clement's Church. She refused to speak to people waiting outside, which led to shouts of "coward", "murderer" and "shame on you" from the crowd. Minor scuffles broke out.

In the early evening of 16 June 2017, hundreds of local residents protested at Kensington and Chelsea Town Hall, demanding that victims be rehoused within the borough and that funds be made available for those rendered homeless. At the same time Theresa May announced a £5 million fund for victims of the fire and promised that residents would be given new housing, as close to Grenfell Tower as possible, within the next three weeks.


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Fire safety reviews

In the days after the fire, Local Authorities across the United Kingdom undertook reviews of fire safety in their residential tower blocks:

  • Brighton and Hove City Council announced that two of its tower blocks were to be fitted with sprinklers.
  • Swindon Borough Council reassured its tenants that there were robust fire precautions in its tower blocks, which each had a monthly inspection.

Several (and possibly all) of the 32 London Boroughs initiated similar reviews:

  • Camden London Borough Council contacted Harley Facades to ask questions about the cladding fitted to five tower blocks called The Chalcots. The council ordered additional safety checks to be carried out.
  • Hounslow London Borough Council's cabinet met to discuss cladding fitted by Harley Facades to Clements Court. It sought to reassure residents in its tower blocks.
  • Newham London Borough Council stated that they were carrying out assessments of Ferrier Point and other tower blocks. Ferrier Point had been refurbished by Rydon.
  • Wandsworth London Borough Council asked its Housing and Regeneration Department to write to tenants to inform and reassure them. It stated that its tower blocks are regularly inspected to ensure that safety regulations are complied with and that fire risk assessments are carried out annually. Castlemaine Tower in Battersea had been given a new facade, fitted by Harley Facades, in 2014.
  • Kensington and Chelsea Borough Council leader Nicholas Paget-Brown told BBC2's Newsnight programme that the council would not use the type of cladding installed on Grenfell Tower on other blocks it owned.

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Investigations

The local borough pledged to carry out a full investigation into the fire. Prime Minister Theresa May ordered a full public inquiry, saying that people 'deserve answers' to why the fire was able to spread as quickly as it did. Sophie Khan, who acted as solicitor for the families in the Lakanal House fire, told BBC2's Newsnight that inquests would be better for the families as they would allow the families to participate and ask questions. She said the coroner was independent but a public inquiry was government-led and she wondered what information the Prime Minister knew that she wanted to hide.

Metropolitan Police Commander Stuart Cundy said a police investigation has been opened to establish if there is a case for any criminal charges to be brought.

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