02 January 2019
Elspeth Grant take a look at the progress of the Grenfell Tower Inquiry, and highlights the importance of an effective evacuation plan in high-rise buildings.
THE GRENFELL Tower fire, with the death of seventy-two people, has once again put the spotlight on stay put policies, evacuation plans and test drills in high-rise buildings located in the UK.
Phase One of the inquiry has now concluded. The Metropolitan Police are quoted as having stated that three people have been interviewed under caution and that possible prosecutions being considered are those of gross negligence manslaughter, corporate manslaughter and breaches of the Health and Safety Act. It is unknown whom is at risk of prosecution or their roles and responsibilities. If a conviction occurs for gross negligence manslaughter, the offence carries a maximum tariff of life imprisonment with a range of up to 18 years in custody. Charges are brought when an offender is alleged to be in breach of a duty of care towards a victim, which causes their death and amounts to a criminal act or omission.
It is imperative, therefore, that all those holding the role of Responsible Person under the Regulatory Reform (Fire Safety) Order 2005 are fully aware of their legal responsibilities particularly where their role includes high-rise buildings. To be specific, the RRO, which covers the common area of high-rise buildings, makes clear the requirement for means of escape together with safety drills:
Article 14 (b): “in the event of danger, it must be possible for persons to evacuate the premises as quickly and as safely as possible”
Article 15 (1): (a) establish and, where necessary, give effect to appropriate procedures, including safety drills, to be followed in the event of serious and imminent danger to relevant persons;
(b) nominate a sufficient number of competent persons to implement those procedures in so far as they relate to the evacuation of relevant persons from the premises.
The requirements for means of escape procedures and safety drills makes no exceptions and applies to all buildings including general needs high-rise, non-disabled and disabled people. The position of disabled people in an emergency requiring an evacuation is particularly precarious with few high-rise Responsible Persons having made any provision for their evacuation.
Consistent advice from the Fire and Rescue Services, since the 1960s, has been that stay put policies, without full evacuation procedures and safety drills, are appropriate in high-rise buildings. This has led many of those named as a Responsible Person under the RRO to believe that they can ignore the legal requirement for evacuation procedures and test drills. This puts Responsible Persons at jeopardy of personal prosecution in the event of injuries or deaths in a fire.
Dr Barbara Lane FREng CEng of ARUP Engineering, instructed by the Grenfell Tower Inquiry as an expert witness, states in her first report that:"...the primary consequence of the rainscreen cladding fire starting at Level 4, and spreading seven storeys within 7 minutes, and 19 storeys within 12 minutes, was that it rendered the Stay Put Strategy unfit for purpose before 01:26 am.”
No existing plan
Watch manager Michael Dowden has told the Grenfell Tower Inquiry that he was unable to implement an evacuation where there was no existing plan and Firefighter Daniel Brown, with twenty-seven years’ experience, stating that “by the time we get there, the evacuation point is lost. There is no chance to evacuate…..”
Dr Barbara Lane’s full report, which can be read at: www.grenfelltowerinquiry.org.uk/evidence/dr-barbara-lanes-expert-report, contains a diagram, which graphically shows that the stairwell remained relatively clear of smoke until 01.28 am.
Residents were, however, instructed to stay in the flats until 2.47 by which time escape was severely compromised. The use of this policy by the fire and rescue service is now under police investigation.
Professor David Purser Prof Purser, a toxicologist and fire safety scientist, told the public inquiry that he had descended from the top of the high-rise in three and a half minutes and that it was reasonably safe for residents to descend the stairs until about 2am - more than an hour after the blaze broke out. He further stated: “So although the single stair at Grenfell was quite narrow, there was a good handrail and the physical capacity was sufficient for all occupants to have evacuated safely within minutes if there had been some means of alerting them to evacuate, such as, for example, a general tower alarm system, which of course we didn't have.”
The adherence to stay put policies is particularly puzzling as guidance from The Ministry of Housing, Communities & Local Government (MHCLG) Guidance makes no exception for high-rise buildings or disabled people underpinning the RRO by stating:
"Under current fire safety legislation, it is the responsibility of the person(s) having responsibility for the building to provide a fire safety risk assessment that includes an emergency evacuation plan for all people likely to be in the premises, including disabled people, and how that plan will be implemented. Such an evacuation plan should not rely upon the intervention of the fire and rescue service to make it work.
“The Disability Discrimination Act 1995 (DDA) (sic) does not make any change to these requirements: it underpins the current fire safety legislation in England and Wales – the Regulatory Reform (Fire Safety) Order 2005 – by requiring that employers or organisations providing services to the public take responsibility for ensuring that all people, including disabled people, can leave the building they control safely in the event of a fire.”
The only guidance to depart from this approach is contained in the Local Government Association (LGA) Guidance, which states: “In ‘general needs’ blocks of flats, it can equally be expected that a resident’s physical and mental ability will vary. It is usually unrealistic to expect landlords and other responsible persons to plan for this or to have in place special arrangements, such as ‘personal emergency evacuation plans’. Such plans rely on the presence of staff or others available to assist the person to escape in a fire.”
Dr Barbara Lane FREng CEng to the Grenfell Tower Inquiry specifically addresses this advice in her Phase 1 Expert Witness Report:
2.25.10 I consider that the lack of provision for persons requiring assistance in a high-rise residential building is unacceptable, and results in a substantial breach of the functional requirement for means of escape under the Building Regulations. In my view, the LGA Guidance should be updated to adequately deal with person requiring assistance from “general needs blocks”
2.25.11 It is also my opinion that a failure to provide adequate means of escape for persons requiring assistance also causes a breach under the RR(FS)O 2005 which I will address in my Phase 2 report.
G3.7.12 I consider that the means of escape provision for persons requiring assistance on the residential Levels 3 to 23 are not compliant with the functional Requirement B1 of the Building Regulations, as no provision has been made.
It is of interest that, in September 2017, just two months after the Grenfell Tower Fire, The London Fire Brigade (LFB) issued a new Fire Safety Guidance Note: Waking Watch / Common Fire Alarm Guidance to support a temporary simultaneous evacuation strategy in a purpose-built block of flats. This was followed in May 2018, by very similar guidance being issued by the National Fire Chief Officer's Council Guidance (NFCOC).
These two new pieces of guidance make the following statements: “All residents should be surveyed in respect of their ability to evacuate the building without assistance. In each case where a resident is identified as being unable to respond to the evacuation signal and/or unable to self-evacuate, the Responsible Person should, subject to the co-operation of the residents, seek to agree a PEEP with each of these residents. The level of onsite staff, training, equipment and evacuation protocols must fully reflect a simultaneous commitment to all of the PEEPs as well as the general evacuation in the building.”
Many building manager’s see this as an impossible task but is this really the case? Take a standard high-rise floor layout similar to Grenfell Tower with six flats per floor clustered around a single central stairwell. Refuges can be formed within the central protected lobbies where assisted escape devices can be located. Allocation of social housing accommodation includes an assessment of need so means of escape can be included as part of this standard process. A Personal Emergency Evacuation Plan (PEEP) can then be developed who, in order to meet the requirements of Article 21 of the RRO, has been trained to do so.
A PEEP is likely to include the provision of an assisted evacuation device which is suitable for the individual and their circumstances. At this point, the Responsible Person is prey to one of the many providers of evacuation chairs, some of which are highly reputable and some of whom clearly have little knowledge of the issues with which they are dealing.
The best advice that one can be given is to go to an established provider, such as Evaccess, who has a wide range of devices including Super Trac, the world’s first portable stair climber with a Unique Self Levelling Operation that gives maximum dignity to the user. The Super Trac’s unique design carries many types of wheel chairs including powered wheel chairs and a variety of manual wheel chairs from children’s, adults and sports.
In conclusion, no such devices existed in Grenfell Tower, there was no emergency evacuation plan for either non-disabled or disabled people and therefore no practice safety drills. The Law had therefore not been met and in the light of this, it must be questioned whether the seventy-two men, women and children died in Grenfell Tower because of the fire or because the RRO was not complied with. Next year, the Inquiry starts to look at these issues in detail and every person with a role in fire safety in high-rise buildings should ensure that they are compliant with all aspects of the Law.
Elspeth Grant is a fire evacuation expert. For more information, visit https://evaccess.uk/