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Grenfell Tower Fire

My Editors Comment page normally concentrates on Gulf fire safety and other relevant matters, but in this edition my subject is the disastrous Grenfell Tower fire in London which has so far claimed the lives of 80 men, women and child residents.

I have done this to highlight the global risks of some tower fires and the need for approved fire resistant active and passive fire protection measures to ensure the safety of all who live in and resort to tall buildings.

The fire was first reported in a 4th floor kitchen at the 24 storey Grenfell Tower in North Kensington, West London, at 00:54 hrs on 14 June, and rapidly escalated into a major incident with an attendance of 40 pumps and supporting special appliances with more than 200 firefighters tackling the blaze.

Quickly developing into one of the worst fire tragedies in modern British history, the aggressive external and internal spread of flames right up the tower block was probably unprecedented in its speed as it rapidly involved most of Grenfell Tower’s floors.

It took until 01:14 hrs the following day to finally bring the smouldering tower structure under control, with the fire having severely involved most floors of the building and destroyed 151 homes, both in the tower and in the surrounding areas.

The Metropolitan Police said that while 80 people are currently presumed to have died, the final toll will probably be higher. Forensic examination of the debris is still being carefully investigated, and on 12 July, Westminster Coroner Dr. Fiona Wilcox said that so far 34 victims had been identified. Metropolitan Police have said that it believes there were about 255 survivors from the fire, many overcome by smoke and trauma.

The cause of the fire

The fire started in a Hotpoint fridge freezer in a 4th floor kitchen, but investigation showed that it was not started deliberately, thus indicating the fire was of electrical origin. Footage has shown the fire spreading up one side of the building externally via cladding panels, and by internal means before engulfing the entire block. Owners of a white Hotpoint fridge freezer model number FF175BP or graphite fridge freezer model number FF175BG should visit the Hotpoint website for advice.

The external cladding

The external cladding installed on Grenfell Tower during a recent renovation has come under extensive scrutiny, with experts saying a more fire-resistant type could have been used. Both the cladding and insulation on the outside of the building has failed all preliminary tests by the police.

Documents obtained by the BBC suggest the cladding originally proposed during its 2016 refurbishment was replaced with a less fire resistant aluminium type, saving nearly GBP£300,000.

With plans for a Public Inquiry under way, together with other specific technical investigations, the Metropolitan Police has said it will consider manslaughter, health and safety, and fire safety charges.

The refurbishment of the tower

Grenfell Tower was built in 1974 by Kensington and Chelsea London Borough Council. An GBP £8.6m refurbishment – which was part of a wider transformation of the surrounding estate was completed in May 2016. Work included new exterior cladding, replacement windows and a communal heating system.

The firefighting heroes of Grenfell Tower

Much has rightly been said about the courage and bravery of the 200 London Fire Brigade (LFB) firefighters and those from other surrounding Brigades involved with the challenging and dangerous rescue and firefighting operations during the Grenfell Tower inferno.

BA crews, and some individual firefighters in BA braved very intense heat and smoke conditions close to the spreading fire to get up to some of the upper floors to rescue casualties and alert many other residents to the spreading fire.

Bravery and gallantry in the UK Fire Service goes back to the 18th century and the first properly organised brigades, and remains an integral quality of modern-day firefighters up and down the country, and indeed across the world. Recalling the dreadful hours as the Grenfell Tower tragedy unfolded, the media rightly called the firefighting crews heroes.

In fact, the mantra of Captain Sir Eyre Massey Shaw, the-then Chief Fire Officer of the Metropolitan Fire Brigade (the forerunner of the LFB) and famous pioneer of some basic firefighting methods is still valid today. Shaw served London for 30 years and in 1866 said:

“A fireman, to be successful, must enter buildings. He must get in below, above, on every side, from opposite houses, over back walls, over side walls, through panels of doors, through windows, through skylights, through holes cut in gates, walls, and the roof. He must know how to reach the attic from the basement by ladders placed on half-burned stairs, and the basement from the attic by a rope made fast on a chimney. His whole success depends on his getting in and remaining there, and he must also carry his equipment with him…….”

A 1971 Government Inquiry into the British Fire Service was led by Sir Charles Cunningham. (Home Office Cmd.4807). The Inquiry report concluded that:

A fireman must have some special personal qualities. He must have physical courage. On occasions he must voluntarily face extremities of danger which confront few other people in time of peace. It is the element of risk and the demand for courage which set the fireman’s job apart from others.

But bravery is not the only personal quality needed. A fireman must be able to work as part of a closely integrated team, the watch to which he belongs. He must be prepared to obey orders without question, especially at an emergency incident. At the same time he must be able to show initiative when working on his own. All of these qualities may be needed in other occupations; but we know of none in which, together with courage in the face of danger, they are needed in combination to such a degree as in the Fire Service.

I proudly served in the London Fire Brigade for almost 20 years before moving on to command a large county Fire & Rescue Service, and know only too well that the above comments still apply to the regular work of the men and women firefighters of the 21st century, wherever they might serve.

The bravery and gallantry of the firefighting crews at Grenfell Tower was in the very highest traditions of the Fire Service. I do earnestly hope that their collective rescue work during that terrible night will be properly recognised, and that the many lessons of this terrible fire tragedy will be learnt and applied.

Top image: Smoke billows as firefighters tackle a serious fire in a tower block at Latimer Road in West London, Britain June 14, 2017. REUTERS/Neil Hall

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Neil Wallington is a former British Chief Fire Officer, a Past International President of the Institution of Fire Engineers, and a holder of the Queen’s Commendation for Brave Conduct. He is the author of 17 books on the work of the fire service, and acts as a consultant with extensive experience in the Gulf on a range of projects.

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