Last week a coroner found the deaths of two firefighters in a council-owned high-rise could have been prevented. Now he is urging ministers to order social landlords to improve the fire safety of all tower blocks. So what can be done and what might it cost? Martin Hilditch investigates
‘It is a night I would never want to live through again.’
Dave Curry, deputy chief fire officer at Hampshire Fire and Rescue Service, was incident commander on 6 April 2010 - one of the worst nights in recent memory for the UK fire service.
A fire had broken out on the ninth floor of Southampton high-rise Shirley Towers. While no tower block blaze is ever straightforward, there were no obvious warning signs that tragedy lay ahead when the fire service responded. The blaze had been contained to a single flat - unlike the previous year’s high-profile fire at Lakanal House, which killed six residents of the south London tower block after flames and smoke spread through the building much more quickly than anticipated.
Despite this, two firefighters - Alan Bannon and James Shears - lost their lives tackling the Shirley Towers blaze. The events that led to their deaths have implications for social landlords across the UK. Last week coroner Keith Wiseman, who conducted the inquest into the deaths of Mr Bannon and Mr Shears last year, wrote to communities secretary Eric Pickles and housing minister Mark Prisk with a raft of recommendations setting out how he believes fire safety in tower blocks should be improved.
Coroners are allowed to write to individuals and bodies if they believe ‘actions should be taken to prevent the recurrence of fatalities similar to that in respect of which the inquest is being held’. Mr Wiseman’s letter makes it clear that the deaths of the two Southampton firefighters could have been prevented if various steps had been taken in advance - and that if social landlords that own or manage tower blocks do not take action now then further tragedies are very possible in the future.
So what went wrong in Shirley Towers on 6 April 2010 and what should social landlords be doing in their high-rise blocks as a result? And in a time of ever tightening budgets, are the recommendations likely to be prohibitively expensive?
Mr Wiseman’s letter is certainly crystal clear that both social landlords and the fire service have much to learn. It states that ‘obvious precautions to prevent the fire occurring were not taken’ and that ‘numerous factors have been identified as being relevant in the chain of causation which could have affected the eventual outcome’.
The lessons are so urgent that Mr Prisk is charged with contacting every social housing provider in the UK to pass them on.
‘We have learned a lot,’ Mr Curry, who is also director of prevention and protection for the Chief Fire Officers Association, admits. ‘As an organisation we were shaken - there is no doubt about it. We have made a real commitment to the families and colleagues affected by that evening to make sure that lessons are learned.’
Despite a number of contributory factors, the story of what went wrong at Shirley Towers is tragically simple. Once inside, the firefighters were confronted by an intense blaze that spread rapidly in the confined space of the flat. At some point the clasps holding domestic wiring in place in the ceiling voids of the flat melted and, with little to support them, the wires fell inside the flat.
Martin Seaward, the barrister who represented the Fire Brigades Union at the inquest, says it is all too easy to picture what went wrong.
‘You can imagine the situation,’ he says. ‘It’s dark. Visibility is really poor. The firefighters become ensnared in cables which have fallen from the ceiling and which impede their movement. In this case it has impaired their movement with tragic consequences.’
Sadly, the coroner’s letter reveals that lessons from a 2005 tragedy, in a block called Harrow Court, in Stevenage, Hertfordshire, which claimed the lives of two firefighters and one member of the public, had not been fully understood and disseminated.
In the Harrow Court case one of the firefighters got tangled in wiring to smoke alarms in one of the block’s communal areas - and the coroner recommended that ‘cable support’ for fire alarms and fire detection systems should withstand a similar temperature to the cables themselves.
Nick Cross, senior manager - housing services, at Southampton Council, says that its fire alarm cabling complied with those recommendations but that the lessons from ‘the Harrow [Court] case certainly never made its way into the social housing sector’.
The Southampton coroner, however, makes it very clear that action should be taken to safeguard all domestic wiring (see box: Coroner’s recommendations). Building regulations should be changed to ensure that ‘all cables, not just fire alarm cables, are supported by fire-resistant cable supports’, he states.
‘The implications for the domestic wiring will be something that will apply to all social housing providers and new wiring installations that they put in buildings,’ Mr Cross explains.
‘Clearly it is not retrospective but having said that, we have got a limited number of tower blocks - there are 16 in the city. We are looking at how we should be taking the recommendations on board and [whether we should be] doing it [retrospectively] as a particular programme.’ The cost of doing this would be limited largely due to the hours people would have to work to install new clasps, he adds.
There is a second recommendation in Mr Wiseman’s letter that may cost social landlords rather more to implement. Social housing providers should be ‘encouraged to consider the retrofitting of sprinklers in all existing high-rise buildings in excess of 30 metres in height’, he states.
So how much would this cost?
The truth is that there has been relatively little research in this area. One of the few pieces carried out for the British Automatic Sprinkler Association in 2011 found there are 4,000 high-rise blocks owned or managed by local authorities across the UK - although this figure did not include Wales.
Looking specifically at a project in which sprinklers were retrofitted into 47 flats in the Callow Mount block in Sheffield, it found the total cost came to £55,134 or £1,150 per flat (see box: The cost of sprinklers). A separate study by BRE Global in 2012 found sprinklers were cost-effective for most purpose-built flats, larger blocks of converted flats and care homes.
Stuart Kidd, general secretary of BAFSA, says he feels the government is shying away from making this measure a requirement - because it might end up with a bill itself.
‘What we are looking at essentially is some civil servants advising ministers that this [ensuring all blocks are retrofitted] would be a “courageous decision”,’ he states. ‘They are terrified of the impact this will have on the demand from local authorities for money.’
The fire service’s Mr Curry agrees that sprinklers are ‘cost-effective’.
‘We would call for all social landlords to review their buildings,’ he adds - stating they should prioritise retrofitting based on risk assessments.
Mr Cross adds that Southampton Council thinks it will cost at least £2 million to retrofit its blocks with sprinklers, although he thinks the work would cost more than the BAFSA research suggested. The council is currently carrying out work to identify the feasibility of retrofitting and says it is happy to share any feedback from the work with other landlords.
The coroner’s third main recommendation is that social landlords should be obliged to have adequate signage in tower blocks to assist emergency services (a key demand of Inside Housing’s Safe as Houses campaign, set up after the Lakanal House fire).
He also says signs should be placed at a low level, so firefighters can read them in smoky environments. All the parties that Inside Housing spoke to this week state that this should cost landlords a minimal amount.
The government now has 56 days in which to respond to Mr Wiseman’s letter. In the meantime it will receive further lobbying from the Fire Brigades Union which will write to Mr Pickles and Mr Prisk to demand the recommendations are implemented in full.
Karl Horan, executive council member for the southern region at FBU, says lessons must now be learned.
‘There was too much of an echo [at Shirley Towers] of the fire in Hertfordshire and the cabling,’ he says.
‘We are concerned for the public we serve really and obviously our safety does come into it.
‘I think we have long known that high-rise fires are extremely difficult incidents for us to deal with. Our aim is to prevent [something like] this happening again.’
As housing providers begin to digest the implications of the coroner’s recommendations it is this last sentiment that should act as their starting point.
Inside Housing is carrying out a survey with nulogic looking at the approach housing organisations are taking to fire safety. To be in with a chance of winning £500 of Marks and Spencer vouchers please take a few minutes to complete the survey at www.insidehousing.co.uk/firesafety
47 number of flats at Callow Mount, Sheffield
£1,150 cost per flat
£55,134 total cost
£7,500 maintenance cost over 30 years
Source: The British Automatic Sprinkler Association and the Sprinkler coordination group