Concerns about fire safety over Grenfell Tower blaze

Questions are being asked about fire safety measures and building regulations following a huge fire at Grenfell Tower block in west London. The blaze has left a large number of residents missing with six confirmed dead so far and the number of fatalities predicted to rise.

The fire devastated the 24-storey block and there are fears that the building might collapse. Structural engineers are on the scene monitoring the situation.

While it is far too early to speculate on the cause of the fire, safety measures and building regulations have come under the spotlight, following reports from the Fire Brigades Union leader Matt Wrack who said that normal fire procedures were “not possible to follow in the Grenfell Tower fire” Speaking to the BBC, Wrack explained that normally firefighters would work from the inside out of a building but at Grenfell Tower they had not been able to do so. He said it was “shocking” that a fire in a tower block was able to take hold in this way.

Fire safety experts had previously warned that a government delay in reviewing building regulations could be endangering tower blocks throughout the UK. Following a tower block fire at Lakanal House in South London in 2009, which claimed six lives, fire safety failings were uncovered in the resulting investigation. These failings included inadequate fire risk assessments and panels on the exterior walls not providing the required fire resistance.

Southwark Council was recently fined £570,000 after pleading guilty to four criminal charges relating to lapses in fire safety. The then housing minister Gavin Barwell said last year that the government will review part B of the Building Regulations 2010, which relate to fire safety, in the aftermath of the fire at Lakanal House. 

Secretary of the All Party Parliamentary Fire Safety and Rescue Group, Ronnie King, said that building regulations “haven't taken account of the Lakanal House fire inquest, or updated recent accredited research”.

Speaking today to Infrastructure Intelligence, King said that he and others had called for the regulations to be reviewed following the Lakanal House fire as people’s safety was being compromised. He said that the “stay put” policy should be looked at whereby people affect by fire in a tower block are told to stay in their flats to keep safe because in the current incident that would not have protected people. “People in the Lakanal House fire stayed put and lost their lives,” King said.

Grenfell Tower was refurbished in 2015 and 2016 when contractor Rydon delivered an £8.6m upgrade to the building as part of a £57m borough-wide regeneration in Kensington and Chelsea. The project on the 1970s-built tower delivered a number of improvements, to the community facilities and energy efficiency of the building. Externally, rain screen cladding, curtain wall façade and replacement windows were fitted, improving thermal insulation and modernising the exterior of the building. Cladding contractor Harley Curtain Wall went into administration shortly after completing their work on the Grenfell Tower project.

Many eyewitnesses to the fire said that the cladding had seemed to accelerate the fire as it raged up the side of the building. King told Infrastructure Intelligence that new build structures above 30 metres would also require automatic fire sprinkler protection but that as Grenfell Tower was an older builder he presumed that this would not have applied for the building’s refurbishment. “I can’t believe that this fire would have spread the way that it had if there had been water suppression,” he said.

Referring to the building’s external cladding, King said: “We have seen incidents across the world where fire has spread up the external cladding of the building because there is in many cases not a specific requirement to deal with cladding on the side of buildings because it is not part of the internal structure of the building and people can escape from fire internally via a protected route.”

King, who was former chief fire officer for 20 years with 40 years’ experience in the fire and rescue service, said that the All Party Parliamentary Fire Safety and Rescue Group had failed to persuade successive government ministers, including latterly the housing minister Gavin Barwell, to review the building regulations because they could be endangering tower blocks throughout the UK. There are still 4,000 tower blocks within the UK which have the same regulations applied to them.

King said: “We have made strong pleas to government get the regulations reviewed. We have said that there is going to be a tragedy and you will be held responsible. I have always said that this is going to be ‘stable door’ legislation. They only react when there is a major loss of life.”

King said that the review of the legislation being demanded would have covered all aspects of fire safety on tower blocks. “We would have asked for everything, not just sprinklers, we would have asked for internal compartmentation, the external ability for fire to spread up a building and penetrate buildings," he said. "We said that the regulations weren’t good enough and needed to be addressed. 

“The fire at Lakanal House with six deaths should have been enough evidence for the government to act. No doubt that today has been that tragedy that really shouldn’t have happened because we should have been reviewing this since 2013," King said.

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