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Government complacency risks another Grenfell

30 May 2019

NEARLY TWO years since the Grenfell tragedy in which 72 people lost their lives, the government has done nothing to adequately prepare fire and rescue services for a similar incident.

New evidence reveals a postcode lottery of preparedness across the country, with some fire services planning to send as few as two fire engines to a high rise fire. The Westminster Fire Minister has repeatedly misled the public about fire services’ preparedness and has grasped neither the severity nor the basic details of the risk.

The Fire Brigades Union (FBU) calls on the government to end the postcode lottery of public safety by implementing:

  1. A national review to understand the scale of failed compartmentation in residential buildings
  2. National standards for the pre-determined attendance – the number of firefighters and fire engines that would initially be sent – for fires in high-rise blocks

The Westminster Fire Minister, Nick Hurd MP, has repeatedly claimed that fire services are prepared for a Grenfell-type fire. Yet only 3 of the 48 fire and rescues services outside of London have been contacted directly by the Home Office seeking information of their preparedness for such an incident. A further 8 have been contacted by the National Fire Chiefs Council and 1 by the Welsh government.

  • “Local fire and rescue services (FRSs) are sufficiently resourced to respond to a high rise fire similar to Grenfell.” Letter to the FBU parliamentary group, 8 May 2018
  • In his reply to a request for clarification, the Minister backtracks on the original statement, now only committing when compartmentation is successful. “My officials have confirmed that all Fire and Rescue Services would be able to deal with a fire in a compartment in a high rise building.”  Letter to Matt Wrack, 25 July 2018.
  • “Fire and Rescue Services have at least a limited high rise firefighting capability and would respond to a fire in a high rise compartment, but response alone is not sufficient to deal with a Grenfell type incident.” Letter to Matt Wrack, 3 September 2018
  • “Fire and rescue authorities have the resources they need to undertake their important work.”1 Written answer to a question from Stephen Morgan MP, 6 March 2019

The Minister appears oblivious to one of the key factors at Grenfell Tower – the failure of compartmentation, the principle whereby buildings are built divided into fire-resistant compartments. The government has failed to assess the risk of the failure of compartmentation, putting both firefighters and the public at risk.

Matt Wrack, FBU general secretary, said, “We’re shocked at the utter complacency of the Fire Minister. 72 people died at Grenfell Tower, a fire for which London Fire Brigade had not planned. Yet the minister still does not grasp the severity, or even the basic details, of the risk across the country.

“It’s no longer possible to claim that fire like Grenfell is unforeseeable. Firefighters were placed in an impossible situation that night. But two years on, the government still has not provided the planning and resources necessary to prepare firefighters for what are now completely foreseeable risks.

"It is extremely worrying that as part of their pre-determined attendances, some services only plan to send two engines to a fire in a high rise building. That is nowhere near enough to tackle a blaze which occurs when compartmentation fails, like it did at Grenfell.

“Fire and rescue services are clearly basing their pre-determined attendances upon a situation where compartmentation works.  But at Grenfell it was the failure of compartmentation that caused the fire to spread so rapidly and virtually none are prepared for such an incident.

“Even with this optimistic assumption, the levels of attendance are mostly utterly inadequate. The difference in pre-determined attendances is also deeply worrying – there is no reason why which part of the country a building is located in should determine the safety of its residents.”

“Grenfell proved the UK government’s utter complacency on fire safety. We need robust national standards to make sure that the lessons from that night are applied everywhere.”

Postcode lottery of preparedness

The data reveals a postcode lottery of preparedness across the country, demonstrating the detrimental effects of the fragmentation of the fire and rescue service. With no national-level infrastructure or standards for fire, government ministers have no real national oversight of this important element of public safety.

The pre-determined attendance – the number of fire engines that would initially be sent to a high rise fire – varies across the country from as few as one water-pumping fire engine up to ten. These numbers are based on the best case scenario where compartmentation has prevented the fire from spreading.

40 fire engines were sent to Grenfell Tower on the night of the fire. The data collected by the FBU reveals that resources outside of London are so stretched that fire and rescue services would not be able to mobilise anywhere near that scale.

The government has done nothing in the two years since Grenfell to address the concerns of residents and have failed to launch a national review of the “stay put” policy, as previously demanded by the FBU.

There are still at least 338 residential buildings wrapped in the flammable ACM cladding which caused the fire at Grenfell to spread so quickly2, while the government still has not begun assessing the risk from other flammable cladding3. There is still no adequate national picture of buildings where fire compartmentation has been undermined in other ways.

Cuts to fire and rescue services have continued after Grenfell, despite calls from the FBU to halt austerity measures in the wake of the tragedy. English fire funds from central government have been cut by another 15% from 2016/17 to 2019/204.