Sunday, 18 June 2017

Grenfell Tower Tragedy

The Grenfell Tower tragedy has stunned us all. It may not have happened in West Sussex, but many of the issues and concerns are equally valid across the UK.

Those of us who are, or were, firefighters can only admire the London firefighters who took such risks and punishment to try and rescue people. I am sure we can also relate to the extreme frustration and despair that they must have felt when they were unable to help more people. Especially when they could see and hear victims, but could not reach them.

It is quite right that there will be a public inquiry and it must cover everything, from when the building was planned, right through to all aspects of the response. Every organisation, body and individual who may have taken, or failed to take, action that contributed to the tragic outcome and post incident inadequacies must be investigated. They must examine what influenced decisions and then assess each one to see if it was right or wrong to take that decision at the time it was taken.

I know many people want an organisation or individual to blame, but I doubt there will be a clear cut ‘x’ knew doing ‘y’ was extremely dangerous, but did it anyway. Disasters usually result from a series of failures and, had any one of them not happened, then disaster would have been avoided. If there is a significant individual failing, that must be dealt with, but that must not allow other contributing failings to be swept under the carpet. If failings justify prosecution then so be it, but the most important thing is to act to prevent all the failings, large and small, from being repeated. There is already strong evidence that lessons learnt previously were not acted upon, and that must not happen again.

We will have to wait for the full facts to emerge, but I would not be surprised if several of the following issues did not play a part:

This is what can happen when politicians:
  • dismiss the professional concerns of firefighters as scaremongering
  • reject genuine public concern as politically motivated
  • remove the inspectorate that monitored fire & rescue services
  • replaced regular fire safety inspections by experienced and trained firefighters with tick box inspections by people with limited training and little or no experience
  • handed fire risk assessments over to the private sector, without any monitoring of their standards, abilities and effectiveness
  • falsely claim that fewer emergency calls justifies fewer fire crews
  • use the fire & rescue service as a political football
  • legislate, but don’t provide funding and fail to monitor those given duties by that legislation
  • fail to understand that Police & Crime Commissioner control of the fire & rescue service will devalue and degrade the service
  • cut local authority funding and deprive them of the money to improve fire safety in their own properties, and to provide an effective planning and building control service to monitor safety in other buildings

This is what can happen when Architects/Developers/Local Authorities:
  • design buildings that can make escape impossible when just two doors fail to close
  • fail to ensure access for fire appliances
  • put lower costs before public safety
  • only install one staircase in buildings that are higher than firefighters’ ladders
  • ignore fire service recommendations and advice
  • don’t have safety at the top of their priorities

 This is what can happen when Chief Fire Officers: 
  • pander to politicians, instead of protecting the public and defending their service
  • support politically motivated lies that cuts will not have serious consequences
  • become complacent about inadequate fire safety standards
  • fail to ensure the service has a strong voice speaking out on safety
  • put more emphasis on likelihood than on risk to life when assessing risk
  • gamble with lives by reducing the resources available
  • increase the risk to firefighters by cutting crewing levels
  • fail to learn the lessons from incidents occurring elsewhere in the World

I also wanted to mention the response. The emergency services seemed to have acquitted themselves superbly, but the local authority and government have not. Having spent some of my fire service career, and all of my local government career planning for emergencies, I am well aware of what should have happened.

Having worked with the current and previous emergency planning leads at Kensington & Chelsea Council, I am puzzled as to why things were not more effective. Now it might be that the media have not covered it, but I would have expected to see their Chief Executive at press conferences alongside the emergency services from at least the afternoon of the day it happened. I would also have expected lots of information on their website and paper copies handed out to survivors.

It may well be that cuts have undermined their planning and training to deal with emergencies. I know that when budgets are under pressure, day to day mandatory duties tend to take priority. They do also have a legal duty in relation to emergencies, but the Government have done nothing to ensure local authorities are meeting those obligations.

It may also be that the Chief Executive and department heads are part of the problem. I have experienced Chief Executives and department heads who refuse to participate in training for major incidents, whilst others have understood that they must be prepared and have contributed effectively. When major emergencies occur, I have known Chief Executives and department heads who have been quite useless in a crisis, whilst there have been others who have stepped up, taken charge and shown the necessary leadership.

I also have concerns about the casualty bureau process which, although a police responsibility, should also have input from the local authority. One of its fundamental tasks is to provide accurate information to relatives and friends, but four days on and some were still saying they have been told nothing. That is unacceptable. I know they cannot confirm all the deaths, but they should have been able to confirm survivors and to confirm, to family at least, if relatives are listed as missing.

I have met survivors and bereaved relatives from previous tragedies who have worked tirelessly to ensure that others don’t suffer from failures in future incidents. I have worked with people at national and local level trying to improve procedures for survivors and bereaved relatives. I can only imagine their frustration as they see lessons learnt, once again, apparently being forgotten.

One final point, if this had happened in any other European capital city, the emergency services would have quickly received substantial support from trained volunteers in their civil defence organisation. This country foolishly abandoned our very effective civil defence organisations back in 1968. As we saw at Grenfell Tower, willing but untrained volunteers were left to do the best they could. Their efforts should be applauded, but in a country rated by some as the fifth richest in the World, that should not have been necessary.

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