11 September 2017
Fire Sector Federation president Brian Robinson provides an overview of what the organisation has recommended be included in the Grenfell Tower Inquiry.
FIRE MINISTER Nick Hurd stated in his recent speech to the Local Government Association that the Grenfell Tower Inquiry’s immediate priority must be to establish the facts of what happened in the fire to take the necessary action to prevent a similar tragedy from happening again. He also recognised that all the wider lessons must be identified and learnt.
The Fire Sector Federation (FSF) agrees that the terms of the Inquiry should be wide ranging and considers that the Inquiry should investigate whether there is currently a systemic inadequacy in the fire safety control, regulation and enforcement regime across the built environment in England. As a consequence, the Federation believes this systemic failure requires a fundamental review and consideration of a national framework to protect the built environment.
The Inquiry should investigate the origin, causes and influencing circumstances of the extreme fire development at Grenfell Tower, in particular how the fire spread to the outside of the building from the room of fire origin, and the subsequent rapid spread over the façade. It should also examine the reasons for the extensive and fast spread of the fire within the building and the apparent breakdown of compartmentation and the relevance of the fire risk assessment in place at the time of the incident.
It should also examine the prime reasons why so many of the occupants were killed and injured, and could not escape in time or be taken to a place of safety by firefighters, in particular the factors affecting early warning of the fire and appropriate means of escape and movement away from the fire and out of the building. Attention should also be given to the response of the fire and rescue service and any factors that created difficulties in rescue and the efficacy of the ‘Stay put policy’.
Modern construction methods
There has been a gradual progressive development in architectural requirements and the ways buildings are designed, built, serviced and occupied. This has been in response to a number of factors including cost effectivenessand greater energy efficiency.
In more complex constructions this has led to more open and less compartmented structures and, in some cases, lower levels of inherent fire resistance. Under these circumstances, the FSF is concerned that testing processes have not kept pace with modern building practices and materials. It is also concerned that there appears to be a lack of understanding of what the tests demonstrate.
The FSF is also concerned that there is fragmentation with regards to fundamental fire research within the UK, with a lack of public funding for both fire research and the collation and sharing of fire statistics and data. As a result, the FSF recommends that the Inquiry investigate:
- The processes used to justify any system and investigate why products supplied do not meet the expected fire performance;
- Should there be a greater focus in the testing regime on structural integrity, combustibility and issues of toxicity;
- How are fire engineered solutions to be maintained fit for purpose for the full life of a building; and
- Should there be improvements in funding for national research, dissemination of good practice and public reporting into the fire implications of non-traditional construction materials, techniques and methods
The Federation has long been campaigning for a revision and update of Approved Document B, primarily to remove ambiguity and provide better clarity where needed and also to suggest areas where additions are advisable to better reflect the current risks in the built environment.
The FSF recommends the Inquiry investigate the clarity and appropriateness of the practical guidance within Approved Document B, and referenced standards, particularly regarding the design and construction of the external envelopes of buildings. It should also question whether the guidance given in Approved Document B and related documents has clarity and is fit for the purpose of ensuring safety from fire in residential tower blocks and if it was correctly followed by the Grenfell designer.
The inquiry should also consider if there is a need for a fixed period of regular review for ADB and if the deregulation and the repeal of Local Acts, such as the London Building Act, resulted in a less fire safe building at Grenfell.
The development of a building project is a complex one with many elements. To achieve a successful outcome this relies on several people with differing disciplines coming together. The process can be fragmented, frequently along a drawn-out supply chain, with no individual taking overall responsibility. The FSF believes it is important that there is an overarching construction strategy to encourage collaborative working across the whole design and build process to improve the quality of installed fire protection within the built environment.
The Federation is also concerned that this fragmentation is also reflected in Government. Fire safety in buildings is an important issue, which is relevant to many government departments, including protecting schools, hospitals, defence installations and many others. With the responsibility for the fire and rescue services and for building control now in separate departments, it is striking that there is no cross-departmental committee for fire as there is for other disciplines. The Federation believes that such a move would assist in developing the holistic view of fire safety that is necessary nationwide.
Overall, the FSF considers that competency is a key line of inquiry. From inception into continued use, through control and inspection of building construction, installation of fire safety features, on into risk assessments under the Regulatory Reform (Fire Safety) Order, and continuous maintenance of those installations and operating circumstances helping to ensure the building remains fit-for-purpose and functional in practice.
A key focus for the inquiry should be on the fire risk assessment carried out for the Grenfell Tower – in particular, if that assessment was suitable and sufficient for the risks that applied in the building given its design, occupancy and the measures provided for escape. That will also need to consider actions taken or not taken by the responsible and competent persons involved.
Brian Robinson is the president of the Fire Sector Federation