In 2009 there was a fire at Lakanal House, a residential tower in south London, which sadly killed six people. Following the incident a UK All-Party Parliamentary Fire Safety and Rescue Group called for a major government review of building regulations. Focussing on London’s 4,000 tower blocks they recommeded fire risk assessments for all the buildings. The coroner on the Lakanal House inquest also recommended the government simplify regulations relating to fire safety so they were easier for landlords to understand. In 2013, then communities secretary Eric Pickles responded to the coroner’s recommendations and promised a review, however, four years on and no government review has been completed despite assurances from former housing minister Gavin Barwell, who is now Theresa May’s chief of staff. A UK governement spokesman has said that the work is on going but no date for publication has been given.
The single staircase at Grenfell House was the only means of escape. This is the norm in UK tower blocks leaving foreign safety experts staggered. Residents fleeing in Tuesday night’s blaze complained that stairways were blocked and full of smoke. Firefighters also struggled to get to the upper levels.
Cheap flammable cladding was used on the exterior of Grenfell House. A leading UK fire safety expert, Arnold Turling, said the Grenfell blaze was “entirely avoidable” and that a gap between the panels that covered the cladding acted as a ‘wind tunnel’, fanning the flames, and allowing the fire to spread to upper levels. It is thought that Grenfell’s exterior cladding, added in 2015, had a polyethylene – or plastic – core but conforms to UK standards.
The Fire Protection Association in the UK have said that a central sprinkler system at Grenfell would have “undoubtedly saved lives”. If sprinklers were present in the building it would have created an environment where it would have been easier to rescue people and increase survivability.
According to the Daily Telegraph, London Fire Brigade have said that claims that doors were not fire-proofed would form part of its ongoing inquiry. Independent sources have stated that not all the front doors in the tower block were fire-proofed. Official fire brigade advice to stay put in the event of a fire is based on fire doors offering protection to residents told not to leave the building. Fire doors help to “compartmentalise” a building in the event of fire restricting the fire’s ability to spread.
According to information released by Kensington and Chelsea Council under the Freedom of Information Act, the last time that Grenfell Tower was subject to a full Fire Risk Assessment was December 2015. Most experts agree that an inspection should be carried out every 12 months. It is also a requirement to have a fire risk assessment carried out if there is a “material change” to the building. The refurbishment of Grenfell Tower that took place in May 2016, which included a ‘material change’ as the result of the addition of cladding, should have triggered an inspection.
Finally, firebreaks should have been included in the external envelope of the building to prevent the spread of burning material. This would have stopped the flames from leaping from floor to floor. However, because the fire at Grenfell spread so quickly fire breaks may not have be sufficient to stop the spread of flames.
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