Firefighters are being treated as a “scapegoat” for Grenfell and attention should instead be focused on its cladding, a group of Labour MPs said in response to today’s report by the inquiry.
Karen Lee, shadow minister for fire and emergency services, said: “I think it’s absolutely wrong to scapegoat the firefighters.
“They were brave people who went into that building to try to save lives, and at the end of the day, those firefighters didn’t wrap those buildings in flammable cladding.”
The report from the first phase of the Grenfell Inquiry recognised the “bravery and commitment” of individual firefighters, but said this cannot “mask or excuse the deficiencies in the command and conduct of operations”.
It said “many more lives” would have been saved if senior officers had decided to evacuate the building earlier, rather than sticking to a ‘stay put’ policy, which it said had become an “article of faith” within the London Fire Brigade.
The first phase of the inquiry aimed to discover exactly what happened on the night of the fire, while phase two, expected to begin next year, will focus on building regulations and other underlying issues.
Shadow home secretary Diane Abbott said it was a “diversion” to talk about the stay put policy and said the main message from the inquiry’s first phase should be about the cladding, which the report said did not comply with building regulations.
She said: “It is the cladding. The people that need to be held responsible in my view are the people who commissioned the cladding, the people who signed off the use of that cladding and the people responsible for regulation.”
Emma Dent Coad, MP for Kensington and Chelsea, whose constituency includes the Grenfell Tower, said firefighters had to contend with a variety of issues including non-compliant fire doors, inaccurate or non-existent signage, exposed gas pipes and a lack of floor plans.
She added: “Stay put is still national policy today, which I find extraordinary after a massive atrocity as at Grenfell Tower.”
The inquiry recommended that the owners of all high-rise buildings develop evacuation plans, keep these plans under review and include facilities to send evacuation signals to residents.
There were no plans to evacuate Grenfell Tower available. Sir Martin Moore-Bick, chair of the Grenfell Inquiry, recommended:
Sir Martin said it is apparent that “ineffective fire doors allowed smoke and toxic gases to spread through the building more quickly than should have been possible”, and that missing self-closers played an important role. He recommended:
Noting the recommendation from the coroner investigating the Lakanal House fire that the use of sprinklers be encouraged, Sir Martin said that some of his experts had “urged me to go a step further and to recommend such systems be installed in all existing high-rise buildings”.
He said that sprinklers have “a very effective part to play” in an overall scheme of fire safety, but that he had not yet heard evidence about their use. He said that he could make no recommendations at this stage, but that he would consider the matter in phase two.
Floor numbers in the tower were not clearly marked and markings were not updated when the floor numbers changed following the refurbishment. Sir Martin said that all high-rise buildings should have floors clearly marked in a prominent place, which would be visible in low light or smoky conditions. Given that not all residents of Grenfell could read fire information signs, he said this should now be provided in a means that all residents can understand.
Use of combustible materials
Sir Martin said the original fire in the kitchen was no more than an ordinary kitchen fire that spread to the cladding because of “the proximity of combustible materials to the kitchen windows” – such as the uPVC frames.
He said this is a matter that “it would be sensible” for owners of other high-rise buildings to check.
He said he would “add his voice” to those who have expressed concern about the slow pace of removal work for more than 400 other tall buildings in England with aluminium composite material cladding.
A total of 97 buildings in the social housing sector and 168 in the private sector have not yet seen the work complete. Sir Martin said the work must be completed “as vigorously as possible”.
He said particular attention should be paid to decorative features, given the crucial role played by the architectural crown at Grenfell in spreading the fire around the building.
Given the decision to ban combustible materials on new buildings last year, he did not call for further restrictions on their use.
Fire service: knowledge and understanding of materials in high-rise buildings
Sir Martin raised concern that junior firefighters were not aware of the danger of cladding fires, and that the London Fire Brigade (LFB) was unaware of the combustible materials used to refurbish Grenfell Tower.
He therefore recommended:
Sir Martin said that a lack of plans did not “unduly hamper” fire services at Grenfell, as each floor was laid out in the same way. However he warned that another building with a more complex layout could pose problems. He recommended:
Firefighters were unable to use a mechanism that allows them to take control of the lifts on the night of the fire, hampering their progress and meaning residents could still use the lifts, “in some cases with fatal consequences”. Sir Martin therefore recommended:
Section 7(2)(d) of the Fire and Rescue Services Act
The judge was concerned that inspections of the tower by the fire service before the fire were not enough to meet their responsibilities under this act. He recommended:
Co-operation between emergency services
There was a lack of communication between each emergency service at Grenfell, with each declaring a major incident at different times without telling each other. Sir Martin recommended several changes to ensure better communication in the future.
Personal fire protection
Sir Martin decided not to issue a recommendation that individual flats be provided with fire extinguishers or fire blankets, noting concerns that this could encourage residents to fight fires rather than escape and call the emergency services.
Communication between the control room and the incident commander
While guidance calls for a “free flow” of information between a fire service control room and the commanding officer on the ground, that often does not happen. Sir Martin therefore recommended:
Even allowing for the pressure of the night, Sir Martin said that fire survival guidance calls were not handled in an “appropriate or effective way”. He therefore recommended:
Command and control
Sir Martin said firefighters too frequently “acted on their own initiative”, resulting in a duplication of effort. He called for better policies to ensure:
Sir Martin made some recommendations for improvements to fire service equipment, including radios and the command support system.
Testing and certification of materials
Sir Martin said this is an issue that will be investigated “early in phase two”, along with an assessment of “whether the current guidance on how to comply with the building regulations is sufficiently clear and reliable”.
He also said the inquiry would investigate whether a ‘prescriptive’ regime of regulation was necessary. However, as these issues have not yet been examined by the inquiry he did not make any recommendations.