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“Dangerous disparity” between regions’ high-rise fire response after Grenfell tragedy

18 June 2020

THREE YEARS after the Grenfell Tower fire, a third of Fire and Rescue Services would still not be sending sufficient resources to high-rise fires, new data from the Fire Brigades Union (FBU) has revealed. Residents face what the FBU refers to as “a postcode lottery” of response, with huge variations between Fire Brigades’ pre-determined attendance (PDA) levels (ie the number of fire engines initially sent to a high-rise fire).

Apparently, PDA levels range from up to ten fire engines and a high-reaching aerial appliance in London down to as few as two fire engines and an aerial appliance in North Wales.

The FBU has called out the “scandal” that national minimum standards have still not been set for Fire and Rescue Service response to such fires. UK Fire and Rescue Services were subject to national standards for most of the post-war era, but these were scrapped back in 2004.

25 of the UK’s Fire and Rescue Services have increased their high-rise PDA since July 2017, while 19 have either seen no change. The PDA levels in two Fire and Rescue Services have actually worsened.

Since the Grenfell Tower blaze, there have been at least eight significant fires in London, Bolton, Crewe and Belfast aided by serious building safety failings.

On average, more resources are mobilised to high-rise fires in London and the South East of England, while fewer resources are mobilised in the West Midlands, the North East and the North West of England, Wales and Northern Ireland.

Huge variation

In July 2017, the FBU wrote to (then) Prime Minister Theresa May warning her of the huge variation in Fire and Rescue Services’ preparedness for a Grenfell Tower-style incident. The letter warned that all Fire and Rescue Services needed to send a minimum of five water-pumping fire engines and an aerial ladder platform to a fire in a high-rise building (ie the standard brought in by the London Fire Brigade after Grenfell).

Three years on, one third of Fire and Rescue Services would still not mobilise five fire engines and an aerial appliance to a high-rise fire. Some would only do so under certain circumstances, such as if there was a building with flammable cladding.

84% of Fire Brigades plan to mobilise an aerial appliance to all high-rise fires. That number rises to 98% when factoring in certain circumstances, such as if a building is known to have flammable cladding.

Many Fire and Rescue Services no longer have a dedicated crew for the aerial ladder platforms, meaning that the high-reaching appliances are not always available. The FBU informed the Prime Minister of this issue in 2017.

Last month, the East Sussex Fire and Rescue Service launched a consultation on sweeping cuts that could remove the dedicated crew for its aerial appliance, while a major fire in Surrey last week saw a waiting time of over an hour for an aerial ladder platform to arrive from West Sussex as no local aerial was available.

Three-quarters of Fire and Rescue Services would send at least one extra officer (of a more senior rank) as part of their initial response, while 58% would send additional support vehicles, such as incident command vehicles.

Earlier this year, Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary and Fire and Rescue Services warned that there was “unjustifiable variation” in the level of service residents can expect from their Fire and Rescue Service.

Drastically different standards

Matt Wrack, general secretary of the FBU, commented: “It’s shocking that, three years on from Grenfell, high-rise residents still face a postcode lottery when it comes to response from Fire and Rescue Services. Lives in London and the South East are worth no more than the rest of the country, yet different regions have drastically different standards. While Fire Brigades can and should do better, this is ultimately a failure of Government policy. Fire and Rescue Services have had their funding slashed for more than a decade and there are still no nationally-mandated minimum standards for high-rise fire response. It’s an utter scandal.”

Wrack continued: “Firefighters have repeatedly warned Government that many Fire Brigades would not now be able to mobilise anywhere near the scale required to tackle the blaze at Grenfell, but they have not listened. This data is a chilling warning to the Prime Minister. His predecessor did nothing to tackle this crisis.”

Further, Wrack stated: “The loss of 72 lives in London three years ago was deeply traumatic, but there’s a good chance that the next Grenfell will be outside of London in an area where fewer resources are mobilised to a fire. The loss of life could be worse still. Something needs to be done now.”

On the third anniversary of the Grenfell tragedy, the FBU has stated that firefighters will not accept another year of inaction when it comes to building safety. The Trade Union has called for an end to “a politics that values profit over people”, condemning “endless promises, excuses and platitudes” from central Government.

According to Wrack: “Firefighters do all that they can to protect human life and the loss of life at Grenfell Tower was deeply traumatic for them as well as for all those others directly affected by the fire. A community and their firefighters grieves. Three years on, we have heard endless promises, excuses and platitudes from Government, but the reality on the ground has not changed. Half a million people remain trapped in unsafe homes and, across the country, another Grenfell could happen tomorrow, potentially where Fire and Rescue Services are not as well resourced. Every day that the Government fails to tackle the building safety crisis is another day that residents’ lives are being put at risk.”

In conclusion, Wrack explained: “While the world has faced up to the Coronavirus pandemic, the inquiry into the Grenfell atrocity has been put on hold, giving the companies and politicians responsible more time to avoid scrutiny. It was decades of de-regulation, privatisation and austerity that allowed Grenfell to take place, with a politics that values profit over people. When the economy restarts, we must not fall prey to the failed arguments of days gone by that led to this horrendous loss of life.”