Now that the initial phase of the Grenfell Tower inquiry has come to a close and although unfortunately, it may be some time before its findings and recommendations will be implemented by law. There are lessons that can be learned now from the tragedy. It is in our opinion, that those changes to improve fire safety from this and that of Dame Judith Hackitt’s inquiry should be implemented as soon as feasibly possible.
Culture of non-compliance
Of course much of the inquiry has been focused on the combustible claddingbut there are other failures of the fire safety systems that have been highlighted too. These include fire doors and their failure to contain the fire and smoke effectively (more info). Just as crucially though, was the failure of the smoke ventilation system (what is a Smoke Ventilation system?).
Smoke killed most of the 71 people who died that night, this is the case in the majority of fatal fires. Therefore, smoke control systems in buildings are absolutely crucial in getting the poisonous gases and heat away from the public areas which are used as means of escape. Sadly, it has only been relatively recent that these ventilation systems have been a legal requirement for new builds over three storeys. Moving forward, we would like these life-saving solutions to be retro fitted as well to existing buildings where feasible too.
Dr Barbara Lane, a fire engineer appointed by the inquiry stated “Fire-safety provisions in the current statutory guidance are not intended for a multi-storey, whole-building fires – but only for a localised fire event.” This is often the case for smoke ventilation systems, where typically its assumed that the fire is contained within a single flat and not the “whole-building” fire as seen at Grenfell. In addition, it was found that many of the automatic opening vents in the tower block did not operate correctly, unable to close as intended. “Had the smoke-control system operated correctly, and the fire service been able to take control, they might have used the system to sequentially vent smoke from the lobbies on each floor of Grenfell Tower.” Lane told the inquiry.
Faulty Smoke Ventilation System
Faults on the ventilation system were reported and although the price quoted to do the repairs was sent back, no authorisation was passed back from the management company to the sub-contractors to go ahead with the repairs. Since this only occurred a few days prior to the fire, it clearly demonstrates the potential fatal outcome with only minimal delays. In fact, a proposal for a maintenance contract including six monthly servicing inspections was offered but also not taken up by those responsible. There was a chain of different contractors which may well have added to the possible failures in the approval process. Kensington and Chelsea Tenants Management Organisation managed the building as a whole, hiring Rydon as the lead contractor for the refurbishment. They sub-contracted out the smoke ventilation system to Witt UK / PSB manufacturers and they then in turn contracted out the repairs to JS Wright & Sons.
Stay Put policy
Much had been discussed about the “stay put policy” during the inquiry. This policy though previously felt to be the best option in many cases will no doubt be reviewed following Grenfell. According to Dr Barbara Lane “this policy effectively failed at 1.23am, yet the LFB kept the policy in place until 2.37am, when 107 people were still inside. Only 36 got out.” Without doubt, one of the factors of the Stay Put policy remaining was due to the staircase being filled with smoke and so posed a risk to residents, in terms of gases and visibility, to their evacuation. Therefore, had an effective smoke ventilation system been in operation, then the order from the London Fire Brigade could have come sooner to evacuate the building and significantly less lives lost.
It is imperative that the correct smoke control systems are installed into multi-storey, residential buildings that can be effective of removing smoke from communal staircases and escape routes quickly and effectively. These along with fire doors and other fire safety systems, must be regularly inspected, serviced and maintained, ideally within six monthly periods. These inspections and servicing MUST be carried out but suitably qualified engineers and accredited contractors. For added peace of mind for those responsible of the fire safety of such building, then the added recommendation would be to have maintenance contracts in place thereby removing potential delays in waiting for authorisation along the chain before repairs can be carried out, particularly if there is a convoluted chain of approval required.