"The Grenfell fire changes everything – we need to do everything we can to keep our residents safe."

The tragic fire in the London Grenfell Tower, which began with a fridge in one of the flats, triggered a series of difficult questions. Difficult not because it is difficult to find answers, but because it is difficult to accept what the answers inevitably demonstrate: human irresponsibility, greed and inclination to take unacceptable risks.

It turns out that life does not wait for free time available in the authorities' schedule and, proves beyond doubt, in a terrible way, that this "due time" has passed. Everything that will happen now in order to improve the safety of residents, though necessary, will be too late for those who lived in Grenfell Tower.

As for now, there is no official statement explaining why the fire engulfed the entire building so quickly, but the government's decision to inspect 600 buildings throughout the whole country in which the same cladding has been used leaves no illusions as to the implications.

The scale of the risk has been confirmed by an extremely urgent decision to immediately evacuate residents from four high-rise buildings in the London Borough of Camden. These buildings were refurbished by the same company as Grenfell Tower.

It is worth emphasising that the decision to evacuate was made late in the evening on Friday. This means that the threat was so serious that the evacuation could not wait until the morning to give people time to think about what to bring with them.

The authorities estimate that in London alone, 27 other buildings may be in a similar condition.

And here are some questions that come to mind:

1. How come that cladding with low fire resistance was used in the renovated buildings?

The causes are certainly complex. Firstly, the UK's safety regulations for many industries are usually general principles - not specific, detailed rules. This means that the law often requires companies to operate safely without providing a specific, binding definition of what that would mean.

Legislators assume that, in the event of a dispute, the company will have to prove to the court that it has acted in a way that their industry would consider safe, given current knowledge and technology.

The design documentation indicates that the use of Reynobond panels from Arconic was planned for the renovation. The documentation does not specify the type of panels, and there are at least two of them: Reynobond FR which is fire resistant and Reynobond PE, which should not be used in buildings that require fire resistance, and certainly not in buildings higher than the reach of a fire ladder. The renovation contractor, understandably in the context of the ongoing investigation, is not providing information about the materials they used. Their supplier admits that they received an order for flammable but 10% cheaper Reynobond PE panels.

We do not know what the as-built documentation, on the basis of which the fire services authorised the use of the building, looks like, or what the procedure and requirements in this regard specifies, but it is certain that the UK fire regulations will change.

In 2009 a similar tragedy, which killed 6 people, occurred at Lakanal House in London. The investigation revealed deficiencies in the fire risk analysis and insufficient fire resistance of the outer cladding. One of the main postulates resulting from that investigation was revising of the existing building regulations and changing them to avoid similar tragedies in the future. In March this year, the Department of Communities and Local Government responsible for the revision refused to provide a date for its beginning, announcing that it would happen "in due time".

It turns out that life does not wait for free time available in the authorities' schedule and, proves beyond doubt, in a terrible way, that this "due time" has passed. Everything that will happen now in order to improve the safety of residents, though necessary, will be too late for those who lived in Grenfell Tower.

Polish fire safety standards prohibit the use of such materials in residential buildings, but it seems it is difficult to stop human ingenuity. During risk analyses we have carried out, we have seen examples: construction of a building 24m high, as one 25m high would have stricter fire protection rules, or a 495 sq.m customer service hall, as rooms larger than 500 sq.m require fire sprinkler systems.

The difference of 1 metre in height or 5 sq. meters in floor area is meaningless from the point of view of the safety of people working in a building, or a company's customers, but as it turns out the difference in the cost of construction and finishing is worth the risk for the building's owners. We must, however, emphasize that everything is done in the majesty of the law, and in order to be unequivocal, the law can not be discretionary and must specify clear boundaries.

2. Why the residents' complaints about fire risk were ignored?

The residents complained for a long time about the fire risk. No one, apart perhaps from the investigators, is forthcoming with a suitable for publication explanation as to why the residents' complaints and even the instructions issued by the fire services were ignored.

Fire-fighters emphasize that a tall buildings should "defend itself", which means using materials with adequate fire resistance so that fire-fighters have a chance to extinguish the fire before it gets out of control, and the provision of safe escape routes for residents to get out of a burning high-rise despite high levels of smoke. It seems that Grenfell Tower failed on both of these counts. The instructions to remain in the flats, which the residents received in the autumn last year, turned out to be a death sentence.

3. Who, when, and how carried out fire safety inspections in the existing high rises?

After the fire the government ordered inspections in 600 buildings in the country. It is already known that ALL buildings checked so far have not passed the tests. It is not possible for any building to be commissioned without a fire services' approval, so the question remains valid. And the scale of the problem points to a systemic fault - perhaps lack of proper regulations - e.g. too infrequent inspections, too general fire safety requirements, or too low qualifications of inspectors - though the latter is really hard to believe in.

Responsibility for carrying out fire risk assessments rests with the building owners. Perhaps this is a mistake?

4. Why was the decision to evacuate the remaining four towers taken so suddenly?

On June 22, 5 high-rises in Camden were inspected (full story of evacuation announcements here: link). The results of the inspections were apparently so disturbing that the decision to evacuate was taken on the same day around 9 p.m. During the inspection it was revealed that one of the towers could be excluded from the evacuation, but still approximately 700 families were rehoused. This is certainly one of the biggest operations of its kind in history.

Camden Fire Department stated that they had not known about the fire hazards identified in the towers. The risks identified include blocked escape routes, incorrectly installed escape doors, but the main reason for the evacuation was that the cladding of the building did not meet the fire safety requirements of the district authorities, which in turn ordered their immediate removal.

The removal could not be carried out in an inhabited building because it was too risky - hence the necessity of evacuation (although during the fitting of the cladding a few years ago nobody evacuated the residents). The residents were asked to pack for a period of 2 to 4 weeks, since that's how long the work is going to take.

The conclusion are obvious:

  • Thousands of people lived in conditions that threatened their lives, in buildings that should not have got the fire services' approval.
  • The fire services issued notices and warnings, which were ignored by the administration.
  • The district authorities were aware of those as residents regularly raised their concerns and identified hazards.

Camden District Council Chair, Georgia Gould said, "The Grenfell Tower fire has changed everything - we have to do everything we can to ensure the safety of our residents." I believe in her good intentions, but it still leaves a bitter taste.

Fortunately for residents of other high rises, and perhaps for all citizens of the United Kingdom, the Grenfell Tower sacrifice will certainly not be in vain. To start with, the residents will get thorough inspections. It can be also assumed with high probability that no administrator or owner will dare to ignore recommendations resulting from such inspections. Nobody will be able to use ignorance as an excuse.

5. What lessons can you learn for yourself from the Grenfell Tower tragedy?

As residents, first of all let's look around. Look at where you live (or work) in terms of fire hazards. Answer the following questions:

  1. Do you know how to put out a small fire? How to extinguish a smouldering electrical installation, a frying pan that caught fire, a smouldering fabric?
  2. Do you know what the fire alarm looks/sounds like?
  3. Do your children know what to do in the event of a fire?
  4. Do you always leave the keys in one place to easily find them in the event of a fire?
  5. Do you and your family know how to escape and exit the building? Have you walked the fire escape route with your children at least once?
  6. Do your family know an alternative route of escape in case the first one turns out to be blocked?
  7. Are emergency routes and exits unobstructed? Are they free of boxes, plant pots, strollers and other obstructions?
  8. If a there is a disabled person in the household, are the escape routes accessible for them?
  9. Where can you go in the event of an evacuation? What to bring with you?
  10. Do you know how to assist pets?
  11. What is the condition of the electrical and gas installation in your building?
  12. What is the plot density on your estate?
  13. How close to a forest or meadows is your building
  14. When was the last fire safety inspection? What were its results? Have recommendations been implemented, and if not - why?

Remember that as a member of a cooperative or a residents' association, in addition to many responsibilities, you also have rights.

Owners and administrators of residential buildings (including hotels, hospitals, nursing and care homes, boarding school accommodations) have a longer list of questions to consider because they are subject to a list of detailed legal requirements that should be the reference point for each audit, and also questions about evacuation:

  1. How will you find out about a fire?
  2. How will you alert the residents??
  3. Do you know where people with disabilities live? Deaf residents?
  4. Are you able to evacuate them?
  5. Where are fire assembly points for your residents? Where will they assemble during heavy rain, snow, sub-zero temperatures, heatwave?
  6. Who can assist you? Is there anyone who can not refuse assistance?
  7. What funds will you use to cover the expenses? Do you know the exclusions in your insurance policy?
  8. Which of your employees will you need in such situation?
  9. What is your legal responsibility?
  10. Who will answer questions from the media, emergency services, law enforcement, local government, or state administration on your behalf?
  11. What will you do if the residents suffer serious injuries? If someone dies?
  12. Whom will you commission for repair/damage removal works?
  13. What will you do if the residents want to return to their flats to get things they left but need?
  14. How will you protect the building from further damage and theft?
  15. If the event concerns a school - where will the children be cared for? (In addition to educational functions, schools also play an important childcare role).

Camden Borough has published a list of frequently asked questions. Its reading can stimulate imagination.

In the case of office or public buildings, you have to answer almost all the questions listed above and some questions related to your business:

  1. If a part or whole building is inaccessible, what do employees, guests, customers do?
  2. Where should they go?
  3. Can they work there normally (do they have everything they need to work there)? If not, what DOESN'T have to be done, or where will you source the necessary equipment, tools, documents?
  4. JIf, as a result of the event, some of the employees have suffered an accident, were injured, got sick, are not able to travel to work, which task will have the highest priority? Which tasks can be postponed? For how long?
  5. If the employees have been sent home - what is their status (working remotely, on inactive leave, on call at home)?
  6. What do you tell your customers?
  7. What do you tell your suppliers?
  8. What do you tell your shareholders?
  9. What if the tragedy strikes at the worst moment (peak production / sales period, holiday season, reporting period)? In the most critical location?
  10. And what if the cause lies on our side (negligence, human error)?

Finally, I would like to share with you one more reflection in the broader context. The impact of a disaster of such scale will undoubtedly affect many entities: the owner and the property administrator, the audit firm responsible for risk analysis, the building repair contractor, its suppliers, the manufacturer of panels used for building cladding, fire brigade, district authorities and finally the government. Each of them will suffer the consequences of their neglect and the shortcuts taken.

This tragic fire certainly undermined public confidence in the authorities and institutions responsible for people safety. It deprived local community of the sense of safety - anyone living in high rises can ask today "Is my home also in danger?" This is a huge social cost.

We employ specialists, we audit, we read reports. We live in an illusory sense of safety. In the meantime, what often causes dangerous conditions, are the laws - unclear or not properly enforced. Legal order and supervision should be designed in such a way that no one dares to risk human life for profit.

About the Author:

Renata Davidson

Renata Davidson has been working in business continuity management for 18 years. During this time, she led dozens of BCM (Business Continuity Management) and similar projects. She likes her work - and she is very good at it - especially BIA (Business Impact Analysis), risk analysis and testing of emergency plans. Ms Davidson has achieved the highest level of certification in the international standard ISO 22301: 2012 (Master) confirmed by the Professional Evaluation & Certification Board. She runs training courses and shares her extensive knowledge with participants.

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