More fires start in flats than houses but firefighters don’t often get to train in real-life high-rises. Simon Brandon feels the heat as he joins West Midlands Fire Service on a rare drill in a council-owned block in Solihull
At first, a few wisps of smoke escape from the seventh-floor window of Girton House, a 15-storey tower block in north Solihull, and drift upwards in the breeze. From there the fire’s progress is rapid and dramatic. Within a couple of minutes the room beyond is filled with roiling, orange flames.
Soon the fire escapes the flat and belches out of the window in a solid mass of heat. On the ground, a group of onlookers has gathered. There are a few firefighters standing around, too, although no one seems alarmed by the conflagration raging above them.
The reason they are so relaxed is that this is a training exercise, but an extremely rare one - it’s been about eight years since the last time. Pete Drummond, station commander at nearby Beckenhill Fire Station in Solihull, sums up the feeling on the ground. ‘It’s not very often we get an opportunity like this,’ he says.
Both Girton House and its adjacent twin block are owned by local arm’s-length management organisation Solihull Community Housing. The buildings are scheduled for demolition early next year and according to Solihull Council, the plan is to replace them with a new open space for the local community.
Since July, however, this condemned block has clung on to active life as a training facility for the West Midlands Fire Service. The WMFS covers a large and densely populated area, taking in Birmingham, Wolverhampton and Coventry.
Bill Gough, a burly man who seems to fill his safety helmet rather than disappear beneath it, is group commander, operational intelligence and site risk survey manager at WMFS, and the person in charge today. There are around 1,500 firefighters serving the region. Mr Gough says they will all have a chance to train here.
‘This is almost unique,’ he says. ‘I would like to say to social landlords: if you have a property about to be demolished and you haven’t sent the contractors in yet, let us use it for a couple of weeks.’
This training opportunity came about thanks to a relationship that had developed between WMFS and 11,388-home Solihull Community Housing.
It began with simple information sharing.
‘Residents don’t always report [fire] damage, so I’ll pass any information [from call-outs] onto Solihull Community Housing,’ says Mr Drummond. ‘We also help with home fire safety checks, that sort of thing.’
By training in an actual tower block rather than in the repetitive conditions of a fire-training centre, firefighters are given the chance to adapt and respond to real-world variables - such as, crucially, environmental conditions. A change in wind direction can mean the difference between the fire being blown back out of the front door, or sucked out of the windows.
Today a leaden sky is sending down occasional heavy showers. As the rain falls, the wind changes, and the rising smoke clinging to one corner of the tower begins to curl this way and that.
The fire was set using wooden pallets stuffed with shredded newspaper, lit with a butane torch. ‘This fire is around 1.5 megawatts,’ Mr Gough explains. That’s about one-third the strength of a normal living-room fire, where the amount of fuel available to the flames would be much greater. Looking up again at the mass of flames licking the block’s outer walls, it’s hard to bury the thought that, were the flat inhabited, the blaze could burn three times as fiercely.
Watch commander Marc Hudson used to fight fires on the front line. The event today finds him in wistful mood: ‘It makes me want to suit up and get sweaty again,’ he says (later he can’t resist posing for a photo while hosing down a burned out flat). But Mr Hudson is here in his capacity as WMFS policy and projects officer, to test current procedures and, if necessary, to develop new ones.
He mentions one shift from recent history - a tower block fire in Southampton in 2010, in which two firefighters died. Cables - for broadband and TV - installed in tower blocks can present a serious hazard. In a fire, the plastic casing melts and the cables can drop down into rooms and doorways. In Southampton, one officer was killed after becoming entangled. Firefighters now carry wire cutters with them as a result.
In the most infamous tower block fires, flaws in building design have been to blame for the scale of the tragedy (see box: Safe as houses?). According to Mr Drummond, tower blocks themselves are not intrinsically unsafe - but they do pose specific problems for firefighters.
‘A flat fire is no more than a metal box,’ he says. ‘It’s the logistics of getting equipment there that are crucial. Things can go very wrong very quickly in a high-rise. The lifts shut down; there are lots of confined spaces; and people can’t escape through the windows. Those factors make it very difficult to fight fires and rescue people.’
According to Mr Gough, a fire should not spread to other flats in a block like Girton House for around two hours. And so while there might be little to learn about building design here, it is a real environment in which to test procedures and skills against the problems posed by the particular physical characteristics of a tower block. ‘This is the sort of fire that can overwhelm firefighters,’ he adds.
And that is why the community and the region should be safer as a result. ‘We benefit in that our local firefighters have had training in our tower blocks and are even better prepared to deal with any emergency that may occur in them,’ says a spokesperson for Solihull Council.
It doesn’t take long for the firefighters to do their job. Soon the flames are tamed into thick smoke, and not long after it dissipates a group of observers are invited up to the flat.
We follow thick, yellow hoses into the tower block and up the stairs, passing a few firefighters still wearing breathing apparatus. It is like being in an epidemic disaster movie.
Two floors below the torched flat is the bridgehead, or base of operations, from where the response is monitored and controlled. One officer is using what looks like a giant tablet computer on a stand to monitor the breathing and air supplies of the firefighters two floors above.
The heat really begins on the stairs between the sixth and seventh floors. The flat itself is like a tropical jungle - uncomfortably hot and humid, the walls still radiating. Most of the floor is covered in grey, ankle-deep sludge. Charcoal and ashes are piled in a corner. Everything is black, except the two glassless windows which frame an incongruously beautiful view of what has become a warm summer’s day.
‘Everyone enjoys the fun bit,’ says Mr Gough. ‘No one likes what comes after - the cleaning up.’
Safe as houses?
Any discussion of fire safety in tower blocks brings the site of one tragedy immediately to mind: Lakanal House, a 14-storey block in Camberwell, south London.
In July 2009 a fire broke out in a flat on the ninth floor. It spread to the eleventh floor, where six people died. An inquest is due to begin early next year (Inside Housing, 9 July 2012). Following the fire Inside Housing launched its Safe as Houses campaign which persuaded social landlords to pledge to put fire safety information on the landings and communal areas of tower blocks.
But are tower blocks intrinsically unsafe? More fires begin in flats than houses, according to the Local Government Association’s latest guidance document on fire safety in purpose-built blocks, published last year - but, it adds, what matters is who you are, not where you live.
‘The most significant influences on fire risk are social and lifestyle factors and advanced age, not the type of dwelling in which people live,’ says a spokesperson for Local Authority Building Control, a member association for council building control professionals. Fires in bungalows are more likely to result in fatality than tower block fires purely because of the older demographic of bungalow dwellers, they add.
We are all safer now than we used to be, too. According to the LGA’s guidance document, the number of deaths each year from fires in dwellings fell from 865 in 1979 to 353 in 2008, a drop of 60 per cent. Preventative measures such as smoke alarms are now widespread, and procedures in the event of a fire have been shaped and refined.
Where once the advice was to evacuate buildings when a fire was reported, for example, today high-rise residents are advised to stay put. ‘This principle is undoubtedly successful in an overwhelming number of fires in blocks of flats,’ says the LABC spokesperson. ‘In 2009/10, of over 8,000 fires in these blocks, only 22 fires necessitated evacuation of more than five people.’
Living in a tower block today is, the authorities claim, no more dangerous than living on the ground floor. The rarity of tragedies such as Lakanal suggests that is largely true in practice.