Some years ago, I had the privilege of sitting beside the then Home Secretary at the launch of National Fire Safety Week. He delivered his scripted lines with the expertise and panache of a veteran politician, but I could that tell his heart was not in it. Later he confided to me in an avuncular aside that he believed that the event was of little importance, ‘there being no votes in fire safety’.
As the events of 14 June 2017 and its aftermath unfolded I gave a thought for that eminent politician and wondered how he viewed the anger, resentment and physical demonstration of bitterness and hatred against what the residents of North Kensington seem to have viewed almost as an occupying power.
Since the Grenfell Tower fire there have been millions of words written examining in detail the design decisions taken many years ago (Grenfell and Lakanal were constructed to a standard, CP3, which was originally published in 1948). Both fires have been afforded intense media interest and scrutiny with a major enquiry still underway. However, I’m saddened (but not surprised) that there has been little attention so far paid to the ‘missed opportunities’ which could have prevented the loss of 72 lives.
The First lost opportunity concerns the type of insulating cladding used to upgrade the function and appearance of the towers. I was privileged to sit at the centre of the fire community between 1989 and 1997 as the director of the Fire Protection Association and was intimately involved with many of the significant fire incidents in that period. In 1991–93 we noticed a significant increase in the number, severity and cost of fires in food-processing plants – one of these resulting in the deaths of two firefighters in 1993 at a poultry processing plant in Herefordshire.
The common factor in the rapidity of spread and intensity of damage was discovered to be the presence of what were then called ‘Large Integrated Sandwich Panels’ – LISPs. These consisted of a sandwich of (usually) aluminium with a powder-coated surface (easily cleaned) concealing an insulating core of combustible plastic material – often polyurethane (PUR) or even polystyrene. The problems arose because the panels delaminated in fire, allowing rapid spread via exposed insulation. It’s believed that these panels contributed to the disastrous 2007 Warwickshire vegetable packing plant fire where four firefighters died. A subsequent fire in similar premises in Peterborough resulted in a campaign by local-authority elected members to require the banning of the panels – or provision of a fire-suppression system – as a planning condition.
The insurers’ response was more immediate, resulting in several initiatives including a Loss Prevention Standard 1181 which covered external insulating panels (Part 1) and internal panels (Part 2). These were backed up by revisions to the FPA Design Guides for buildings (effectively the insurer’s ‘add-ons’ to Approved Document B). The impact of the insurers’ concerns had an immediate effect and in the words of one manufacturer of insulated panels ‘made all panels except those with a PIR or mineral fibre core unsaleable’. The introduction of low-combustibility materials like polyisocyanurate (PIR) or non-combustible materials like mineral wool solved the problem.
Given the availability of LPS 1181 and manufacturers’ awareness of this and the issues involving fire spread, one might reasonably question why any non-compliant insulating panels would still be manufactured and sold 20 years later.
In fact, the issues relating to panels with a combustible insert also struck a chord with some of the older members of the fire community who remembered the Summerland disaster. This 1973 fire, which resulted in more than 50 deaths, was the result of the building being clad in Oroglas, an acrylic material which not only was readily ignitable but which melted and spread the fire by liquid drops of burning material.
Secondly, serious fires in residential tower blocks are also not perhaps as rare as some people believe (see Table 1), and I’d certainly question some of the conclusions in the 2011 LGA guide Fire safety in purpose-built blocks of flats: “People living in flats experience more fires than people living in houses. However, a fire in a flat is no more dangerous than a fire in a house. High-rise does not mean high-risk!”
The same document suggests that it is not necessary to upgrade fire-safety provision when statutory guidance changes: “…application of current benchmark standards to an existing block of flats is not normally appropriate”. Are we really meant never to implement lessons learnt in real fires, regardless of the number of deaths? Fortunately, this maxim was not applied following the Kings Cross Underground fire when extensive and costly improvements were undertaken across the network.
Thirdly, “stay put”. Both Lakanal House (constructed 1959) and Grenfell (constructed 1974) were designed with only a single staircase and this effectively provided no alternative to the ‘stay put’ policy which cost so many lives in these two fires. I have always believed that this policy was fragile, depending as it does on the integrity of fire compartmentation which may have been installed 50 years earlier. Given many real-life instances where such integrity was absent (have a look at the underside of the cross-over stairs at Lakanal), I do believe that the time has come to examine the alternatives. Failure to do this after Lakanal, where some residents died in their flats while being told on the phone to “stay put”, could have informed the refurbishment of Grenfell Tower.
In this context, it is worth noting that the 1983 BRE publication Aspects of fire precautions in buildings, page 73 suggests that: “As a rule, therefore, a minimum of two stairways is necessary…”.
Perhaps the ultimate, if unwitting catalyst for the whole Grenfell tragedy can be traced to the 2006 DCLG publication A Decent Home. This was intended to be a guide for social-housing providers on how buildings could be improved using finance from the ‘Decent Homes Fund’ to meet the Government’s target of ‘all homes to be decent homes’ by 2010. The guide places great stress on energy saving and insulation measures. What is sad – and surprising, given the large number of tower blocks with single staircases – is that nowhere in the guide is there any mention of fire safety.
Perhaps the most telling missed opportunity of all can be found on page 8 of this document which suggests that in some instances, ‘demolition of the existing stock may represent a better option than refurbishment’.
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