GRENFELL TOWER FIRE TRAGEDY: Solidarity Conference presentation by retired firefighter – Ken Ross

https://youtu.be/z1T36cWQ4Ug

By KEN ROSS

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GRENFELL TOWER FIRE TRAGEDY

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Comrades

Grenfell Tower was a 24 storey high rise residential tower block, located in South Kensington, which was built in 1974 by Kensington and Chelsea London Borough Council.

The 67m tall building contained 129 one and two bedroom flats, and housed up to 600 people.

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THE INCIDENT

In the early hours of Wednesday 14th June 2017, Firefighters in London Fire Brigade were mobilised to a fire in Grenfell Towers.

In Flat 16, on the fourth floor of the building, the flat’s resident was awakened by a smoke alarm.

When he entered the kitchen at approximately 0050hrs, he discovered smoke issuing from the fridge-freezer.

He alerted his lodgers and neighbours then called London Fire Brigade (LFB) at 0054hrs.

The first two fire appliances arrived at the scene within 6 minutes of the initial call.

The initial incident commander identified the fire as it glowed in the window. Subsequently, a further 2 fire appliances were mobilised to the incident.

In line with the Service’s long standing “Stay Put” policy for high rise buildings, residents who subsequently called the Fire Service were told to remain in their flat, unless it was affected.

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Before I continue, I would like to explain a little bit about Fire Service procedures and the Stay Put policy.

Firefighters follow national recognised Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs).

The basis, in which these SOPs are written, is to tackle fires in buildings that are built to regulated national standards.

Some may think that fire is not predictable, but this is not the case. Fire develops and behaves very predictably, depending on the fuel, air and environment.

Consequently, Standard Operating Procedures are written incorporating how a fire will behave and develop, and how any given building will behave in fire conditions.

Additional facilities can be put in place in buildings, such as Smoke Detection, Fixed Installations (ie, Sprinkler Systems), Smoke Stop Doors, Emergency Lighting, etc.

In the case of Multi Storey Flats, their construction is based on compartmentation – blocks of concrete cubes (or compartments), which contain each flat.

These compartments don’t burn, and can keep a fire trapped inside the compartment for some considerable time.

The only weak points in each compartment are the doors and windows, but they should also meet recognised standards of fire resistance, as well as being properly fitted.

Therefore, the greatest risk to occupants of other flats in the building is that of smoke filled corridors, leading to escape routes.

This is why there is a “Stay Put” policy, which has been in place in such buildings for decades – stay in your flat until the Fire Service gives the “all clear“.

A fire in a multi-storey building that is designed to contain fire to the flat of origin, and that is tackled and extinguished using tried and tested procedures, most people in the other flats within that building, wouldn’t even know that a fire had occurred until the morning after.

Therefore, incorporating all of this information – the arrangements, the standards, the knowledge and experience – SOPs enable Firefighters to intervene to save lives, to tackle & extinguish fires and do their job effectively and safely.

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So, as per nationally recognised Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs), Firefighters entered the building and set up a bridgehead on the second floor, which is an internal base of operations, two floors below the floor of the fire.

They entered Flat 16 at 0107hrs. Approximately one minute later, the fire breached the kitchen window. It then very quickly set the surrounding cladding panels on fire.

This was observed by the Incident Commander outside, who at 0113hrs requested another 2 fire appliances and an aerial.

This request triggered the dispatch of more senior officers, a fire investigation unit and two command vehicles.

By the time the Firefighters began extinguishing the kitchen fire, a column of flames was quickly advancing up the side of the building.

At 0115hrs, a Firefighter discovered smoke in Flat 26 (directly above Flat 16). Another discovered residents who had fled smoke on the fifth and sixth floors, and large quantities of debris had begun falling from the burning façade.

The flames spread up the side at a “terrifying rate“. Attempts to fight the fire with an external jet were unsuccessful, as it was mostly burning behind the waterproof rain screen.

By 0130hrs, a rising column of flames had reached the roof and the fire was now out of control. The fire on the eastern exterior spread sideways and brought smoke and flames into multiple flats.

By 0118hrs, 34 of the 293 residents had escaped. The busiest phase of evacuations was between 0118hrs and 0138hrs, when 110 people escaped, with many being woken up by their smoke alarms when smoke entered their flat.

Due to Ramadan, many observing Muslim residents were awake for the pre-dawn meal of suhur, which enabled them to alert neighbours and help them to escape.

At 0119hrs the number of fire appliances increased to 8, with a specialist fire-rescue unit, bulk breathing apparatus carrier and damage control unit also being mobilised.

At 0127hrs appliances were increased to 10, along with a second aerial appliance. Two minutes later, a request for a total of 20 appliances was made and at 0135hrs, only 35 minutes after the initial attendance, that request was increased to 25 appliances.

Police and Ambulance resources were also mobilised to the scene.

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Due to fire doors not closing and sealing properly, smoke began to spread from affected flats into the lobbies.

By 0133hrs, LFB were receiving calls from residents who reported being trapped in their flats.

At some point between 0130hrs and 0140hrs, smoke spread to the stairwell, making it very difficult for residents to escape without assistance from the firefighters.

Whilst by 0158hrs a further 48 people were rescued, more than half of those still trapped eventually perished.

The fire continued to spread sideways on the exterior, and by 0142hrs had reached the north side.

Communications proved to be difficult, due to the noise levels at the incident.

At the bridgehead, incoming firefighters were assigned flats to go to and were briefed on whom they would need to rescue.

They donned breathing apparatus and headed to the flat to search for its residents.

The firefighters encountered thick smoke, zero visibility and extreme heat when they climbed above the fourth floor.

Some residents had moved location to escape the smoke.

Three firefighters, who went to rescue a 12 year old girl on the 20th floor, were unable to find her.

Unknown to them, she had moved up to a flat on the 23rd floor, and was on the phone to a control operator who had no means of knowing what the firefighters at the incident were doing, and later died in this location.

Another 2 firefighters were sent to a flat on the 14th floor with a single resident, but found 8 people there (only 4 managed to escaped).

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At 0204hrs, it was declared a Major Incident, and the number of fire appliances was raised from 25 to 40, the number of rescue units increased to 10, command vehicles to 6, aerial platforms to 4, and operational support units to 2.

Witnesses reported seeing people trapped inside the burning building, switching the lights in their flats on and off or waving from windows to attract help, some holding children.

Eyewitnesses reported seeing some people jumping out, and 4 victims were later found to have died from “injuries consistent with falling from a height“.

At least one person used knotted blankets to make a rope and escape from the burning building.

Frequent explosions were heard, that were reported to be from gas lines within the building.

Outside, operations were hindered by falling debris, including burning pieces of cladding.

The MPS Territorial Support Group was present; besides being a specialist unit for public order policing, they provided riot shields to protect firefighters from falling debris.

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Over the course of the operation, 250 firefighters attempted to control the blaze, with more than 100 firefighters inside the building at any given time.

Even though Commissioner Dany Cotton admitted that LFB had broken their own safety protocols – by entering a large building without knowing whether it was in danger of structural collapse – the firefighters went in anyway.

It wasn’t until the following afternoon that structural engineers were able to assess the structure and determine that it was not in danger of collapse.

By sunrise, the firefighters were still busy fighting the fire and attempting rescues on the inside. The last resident to be rescued was at 0807hrs7 hours after the fire broke out!

By the end of the incident, 72 lives were lost, including those of 2 victims who later died in hospital. More than 70 others were injured and 223 people were rescued or escaped.

It was the deadliest structural fire in the UK since the Piper Alpha disaster in 1988, and the worst UK residential fire since the Second World War.

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THE AFTERMATH

The subsequent fire investigation found that the cladding that had been fitted to the building during a recent refurbishment, didn’t meet building regulations.

Not only were the materials it was made from substandard, but the cladding was also inappropriately fitted, allowing an air gap between the cladding and the building, which facilitated a chimney effect and enabled rapid fire spread.

Fire Safety laws changed in the early 2000s, and took much of the control, monitoring and inspection regimes away from Fire & Rescue Services. It also watered down the fire safety legislation itself.

This has allowed standards to slip and be unchecked, and ultimately led to the Grenfell tragedy.

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What you may not know is that the refurbishment of the building took place as a consequence of pressure from residents who lived in a nearby affluent area and had complained that the Tower was an eyesore.

It didn’t take place to improve the lives of the tower’s residents, but to provide more pleasing aesthetics for the richer residents within site of the building.

The refurbishment was done on the cheap. Proper cladding, that met fire regulations standards, would only have cost a nominal amount more, but the Council chose not to spend it.

Instead, just months after the tragedy, the affluent residents in Kensington & Chelsea each received a £100 tax rebate, totalling considerably more than what the additional cost of proper cladding would have been, as the Council boasted how well they had managed the public finances and were rewarding their richer constituents.

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The Grenfell Action Group had been raising safety concerns about the building for about 12 years prior to the tragedy.

Such concerns included poor & defective emergency lighting; defected fire doors; inadequate means of escape; blocked corridors; out of date fire extinguishers; the lack of sprinklers and a general neglect of the building’s fire safety maintenance.

In June 2016, an independent assessor had highlighted 40 serious issues with fire safety at Grenfell Tower and recommended action to be taken within weeks.

The Kensington & Chelsea London Borough Council created a Tenant Management Organisation, called the Kensington & Chelsea Tenant Management Organisation (KCTMO). They manage the Council’s housing stock.

In October 2016, the assessor asked KCTMO why there had been no action taken on more than 20 issues in the June report.

In November 2016, the London Fire and Emergency Planning Authority served a Fire Deficiency Notice, listing many fire safety issues at Grenfell Tower that required action from KCTMO by May 2017.

Areas of concern identified included the standard of cladding being fitted to the building.

None of these issues were resolved!

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PUBLIC INQUIRY REPORT

In September 2017, a Public Inquiry was ordered.

The first phase Report of the Public Inquiry was published a few weeks ago, on 30th October 2019 and inexplicably laid the blame for the tragedy at the feet of Firefighters!

This is utterly contemptable, as well as a complete insult not only to the Firefighters who acted so bravely that night, but to all Firefighters, who risk their lives to save others every day.

Firefighters are not to blame for the tragedy!!

It wasn’t Firefighters who wrapped the building in flammable cladding.

The real culprits are those who did and those who:

  • rode a coach & horses through the UK’s fire safety regime;

  • ignored the warnings from previous fires; and

  • ignored the pleas from a community worried about their safety!

Long before firefighters attended that incident, the building had already been turned into a death trap.

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There was also no mention in the report of the devastating cuts to the London Fire Service in the past 10 years.

When Boris Johnston was the Mayor of London, he closed 10 Fire Stations, removed 27 Fire Appliances, and got rid of 552 front line firefighter posts and 324 Support Staff posts.

Firefighters told him at the time that more lives would be lost as a consequence of these cuts. He ignored them!

Subsequently, fire deaths in London have risen by 40%!

Despite this, he has not been blamed for the failures of the Grenfell tragedy.

Instead, he sits back and allows that blame to be aimed at Firefighters!

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So, who are the people who are to blame for the tragedy?

Let me tell you…

1. The people who made the decision to wrap Grenfell in flammable cladding.

2. The people who made the cladding – The ignition of the polyethylene within the cladding panel produced a flaming reaction which was quicker than dropping a match into a barrel of petrol.

3. The contractors who left gaps around the windows and decided to plug those gaps with a material derived from crude oil, which produced the perfect medium for fire spread around the windows.

4. Exova, the fire safety consultants used in the refurbishment, who had advised there would be no adverse impact on the spread of fire by the refurbishment.

5. The insulation manufacturer Celotex.

6. CEP, the sub-contractor who bought and fabricated the cladding panels.

7. Rydon, the main design and build contractor, who are now claiming they were not responsible for decisions relating to the cladding.

8. Kensington & Chelsea Council London Borough Council and their Tenant Management Organisation, who instigated and oversaw the botched refurbishment.

These parties all had collective responsibility. They all failed the people of Grenfell Tower.

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That night, the Firefighters faced an unprecedented incident.

All their knowledge, skills and experience was called upon to try to deal with the unique and deadly circumstance that they faced.

The risk to their own lives was so high, that they wrote their names on their helmets before they entered the building, so they could be identified later, as there was a real possibility that they wouldn’t make it back out alive.

Despite this, they still went in!

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You may have seen in the news last night or this morning, that there was a fire in student accommodation in Bradshawgate in Bolton.

Thankfully there were no casualties, but witnesses reported “fire climbing up the wall” of the 6 storey building and that fire “engulfed the building from the outside”!

On 28th June 2017, the Bolton News reported that after concerns were raised by student residents regarding the cladding on the building, in the aftermath of the Grenfell fire, the Council inspectors assured them that they were “happy with the building” and that it was “perfectly safe”.

Well, it clearly wasn’t!

Matt Wrack, the FBU General Secretary statedThis terrible fire highlights the complete failure of the UK’s fire safety system.

It’s deeply troubling to see fire spread rapidly up a building’s exterior again – a shocking indictment of the government’s shameful inaction after Grenfell.

This is not how any building should react to a fire in the 21st century, let alone a building in which people live.

We need to end the deregulation agenda and the disastrous cuts to our Fire & Rescue Services. It’s time for a complete overhaul of UK fire safety before it’s too late”.

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I would also like to quote Matt from a speech he made at the Durham Miner’s Gala a few weeks after Grenfell.

He said “I’ll say this about Firefighters, they are also workers, and they’re also members of a Trade Union. And almost to a man and a woman, the people going into that building were members of the Fire Brigades Union.

“So, the next time the Press turn on us, take a moment and look at the pictures of those firefighters queuing up in their breathing apparatus, to enter that inferno, and remind them – that’s what Trade Unionists look like”!

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Firefighters are not at the root of this tragedy – Politics, Greed and a complete Disregard for the safety and wellbeing of the residents of Grenfell, who constituted the poorer and more vulnerable members of the community, are at the root of it!

We saw just a couple of weeks ago the true face of the Tories with regard to Grenfell, when Jacob Rees-Mogg stated that the residents of Grenfell Tower lacked common sense and weren’t smart enough to escape the fire, and suggested that they should have ignored the advice of the Fire Service, as he would have done.

Andrew Bridgen went on to support those comments by saying that Rees-Mogg would have been too clever to die in the Grenfell fire!

Well, I would like to put that to the test!

I would like a scientific test of Etonian MPs superior ability to escape a burning tower block, as I’m sure Fiefighters around the country would!

The MSM went on to describe his comments as a “gaff”!

  • It wasn’t a gaff!

  • It wasn’t a mistake!

  • It wasn’t a slip of the tongue!

He meant every word!

To add insult to injury, the Tory Government recently announced that Rydon, the main contractor who re-clad the Tower, have been placed on an official list of firms recommended to build high-rise buildings, as part of a £30bn 7yr Construction Framework agreement! Unbelievable!

And worse of all, despite the obvious causes of the fire, absolutely nothing has been done by the Tory Government in the past 29 months to address those issues – NOTHING!

And after those 29 months, no one has been prosecuted – NO ONE!

This just shows you how much they don’t care!

And it makes it all the more important that Firefighters are not made the scapegoats for this political corruption and failure!

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The truth of this tragedy is there for us all to see.

It must be officially recognised and the issues properly addressed.

Otherwise, we will see other tragedies like Grenfell, and more lives being needlessly lost!

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**ENDS**

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