FBU criticises ‘serious shortcomings’ of Grenfell Tower Inquiry

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Firefighters march with survivors and local residents on the first anniversary of the Grenfell inferno

BELOW is the introduction to the Fire Brigades Union’s 64 page ‘Response to the Grenfell Tower Inquiry Phase 1 Report,’ containing scathing criticism of its ‘significant shortcomings’.

‘The Fire Brigades Union (FBU) is the democratic, professional voice of firefighters and other workers within fire and rescue services across the UK.

‘We represent the vast majority of whole-time (full-time) and retained (part-time, on-call) operational firefighters and operational fire control staff across the UK.

‘The FBU welcomes the publication of the Grenfell Tower Inquiry (GTI) Phase 1 report. The bereaved, survivors and residents (BSRs) – as well as firefighters – have waited too long for an official report into the fire.

‘The union commends the GTI for the dignified treatment of those who died or who lost loved ones.

‘The FBU welcomes the recommendations and will work together with other interested parties to ensure they are implemented swiftly.

‘There are many practical matters to be resolved, which the union is committed to assist with.

‘The GTI has published a great deal of written evidence from those who lived in and around Grenfell Tower, which sheds light on the events of 14 June 2017.

‘It has also heard oral testimony from those directly affected.

‘Similarly, firefighters attending on the night have given their written statements and some also gave testimony to the inquiry.

‘A range of expert reports have been produced, which also provide much insight into the fire at Grenfell Tower.

‘Despite the merits of the GTI’s investigation so far, the FBU cannot ignore significant shortcomings in the Phase 1 report.

‘The GTI has produced a forensic examination of the events of 14 June 2017 at Grenfell Tower and made a number of scathing criticisms of the actions of firefighters on the night of the fire.

‘The report comes to a very harsh verdict on the London Fire Brigade (LFB), particularly its principal management.

‘The Phase 1 Report states that the public inquiry is intended to be “an investigative, rather than an adversarial, process” (1.25).

‘Yet firefighters feel aggrieved when they are subjected to harsh criticism, while those responsible for the failures that led to a disaster on this scale have so far not faced serious cross-examination.

‘The conclusions drawn by the GTI’s Phase 1 report fail to reflect very significant evidence and interpretation provided by the Inquiry’s own appointed experts.

‘Mr Todd’s report provides a useful overview of the regulatory context and yet is barely referred to.

‘Dr Lane, Professor Torero and Professor Purser provide significant evidence of early smoke logging, derived from the witnesses inside the building, yet this is mostly overlooked.

‘To compound this, the GTI appointed Mr McGuirk as its firefighting expert, yet came to stark conclusions about firefighting matters without his input.

‘For the record, the FBU opposed Mr McGuirk’s appointment to the GTI because of his previous record as a chief fire officer.

‘However the union strongly supported the need for the GTI to receive expert input from the fire sector (including our own contribution).

‘The GTI’s Phase 1 report fails to establish the necessary context within which the fire took place.

‘This is the consequence of investigating the events of the night before looking at what led up to it.

‘The GTI has neglected the deregulation of fire safety, which proceeded for almost the entire life of Grenfell Tower.

‘Government ministers and business lobbyists responsible for weakening the fire safety regime are completely ignored by the GTI.

‘The GTI report fails to put the decisions and actions of firefighters on the night into context.

‘The building itself, the presence of the cladding, along with failings with the windows, doors, lifts, ventilation system and dry riser meant that compartmentation was compromised before the fire started.

‘Grenfell Tower suffered from total building fire safety failure long before the fire had broken out. Long established fire safety engineering solutions in the tower were compromised.

‘Investigating how this was allowed to happen raises serious questions for “responsible persons”, namely the owners and managers of Grenfell Tower, the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea (RBKC) and the Kensington and Chelsea Tenant Management Organisation (KCTMO), as well as those other parties who profited from the refurbishment project, which clad the tower in combustible materials.

‘LFB principal management did not plan for a fire of this type or magnitude, did not develop procedures for such a fire and did not train and equip incident commanders, operational firefighters and emergency control staff for this eventuality.

‘But no fire and rescue service in the UK had anticipated such a failure in residential tower blocks at that time.

‘Local fire and rescue services (including LFB) do not operate in isolation: they exist within the context of regulations, guidance and resources for the whole fire and rescue service determined by the ministers and chief fire officers.

‘This enables firefighters from different stations and brigades, as well as control staff from different control rooms, to work together at incidents under a single command structure.

‘The FBU accepts the GTI’s findings that the fire originated in the large fridge freezer in flat 16. The union also agrees with the GTI’s conclusion that the fire subsequently spread through the window, window surrounds or extractor fan to the exterior 4 cladding, and from there rapidly to the top of the building and via the architectural crown to other sides of the tower.

‘The FBU also accepts the GTI’s findings that the fire broke back into flats via the window glazing, extractor fans and window surrounds, and then from flats through defective and/or open doors into the lobbies and stairs.

‘The GTI’s Phase 1 report fails to understand the actual conditions faced by residents on the night, which severely limited the options available to firefighters.

‘The GTI has failed to draw the proper conclusions from the important evidence provided by the bereaved, survivors and residents on smoke logging, particularly around 01.30, which prevented many of them from leaving the building.

‘The GTI has also failed to take on board the evidence and interpretation of its own experts. They paint a far more complex picture than the simplistic view in the GTI’s Phase 1 report.

‘The FBU rejects the GTI’s Phase 1 report conclusion (expressed in chapter 28 and sadly littered throughout the narrative), that a decision for some sort of “mass evacuation” should have been taken at 01.30 (or at least by 01.50). This was unprecedented in the UK, where there had never been a mass evacuation of a high rise residential building involved in fire and for which there was no procedure nor had there been any training. There had been no national research, development, planning or procedures for such an approach before the Grenfell Tower fire in the UK.

‘It still has not happened but at last a national steering group is being established with this in mind.

‘The FBU rejects the GTI’s “mass evacuation” proposal as unfeasible on the night.

‘The union finds it perverse that the GTI came to this conclusion without taking evidence from its own appointed firefighting expert, Mr McGuirk. The fact that the report admits as much, when it states “I am conscious that I have received no expert evidence to guide me on it” (28.5). But this qualification does not excuse the approach.

‘The FBU rejects the GTI’s criticism of incident commanders in the first two hours of the fire, for not making this decision to “evacuate” or for not abandoning the “stay put” policy. Grenfell Tower was designed for “stay put”.

‘The GTI appears to believe that early incident commanders should have disregarded their training, ignored the actual conditions on the night and gambled on an untried, untested command “strategy”.

‘The GTI has not taken into account the situation facing incident commanders nor properly considered the resources at their disposal when faced with an unprecedented fire.

‘The FBU rejects the GTI’s harsh criticism of individual control staff, who did their professional best on the night when faced with an overwhelming volume of calls, including the number and duration of FSG calls never experienced before.

‘The often personalised micro-criticism of individual control staff detracts from the real failures.

‘Control staff were under-resourced, not trained for such a fire and faced huge uncertainties on the night.

‘The FBU rejects the criticism of individual firefighters, who had to make split-second decisions in very arduous conditions given the lack of planning, procedures, training or equipment necessary to intervene.

‘The FBU believes firefighters went beyond their professional duty, often risking their own lives to rescue people.

‘Firefighters attempted to save as many people as they could. Sadly, they were not able to help everyone escape.

‘The FBU believes that the GTI’s posing of the question “could more lives have been saved” is unhelpful speculation.

‘The real counterfactual is that more lives would have been saved had the cladding not been installed, nor the building failed on fire safety grounds in other significant respects, including windows, doors, the ventilation system, lifts, stairwell and other failures.

‘The GTI makes severe judgments in hindsight about the events of the night, which the FBU believes fail to pay proper regard to the real risks and uncertainties facing the firefighters initially deployed to the fire.

‘The FBU said from the outset that the GTI’s division into Phase 1 and 2 was mistaken and we believe the Phase 1 report bears this out.

‘The report has to refer fleetingly to matters leading up to the fire, but fails to fully establish the context within which firefighting took place on the night.

‘It would have been better to establish the circumstances that led to the fire (and the culpability of those responsible for the building) before proceeding to examine the events on the night.

‘The FBU expects the GTI, in Phase 2, to undertake the same kind of forensic investigation and criticism of individual politicians, business people and others responsible for Grenfell Tower.

‘The union notes that, in Module 6 of Phase 2, the GTI will be considering the issues of whether “appropriate steps (were) taken by central and local government and other relevant bodies to act upon (relevant recommendations made before Grenfell) insofar as they were relevant to the risk of fire in high-rise residential buildings?”

‘We expect ministers who were ultimately responsible for the failed fire safety policy over many decades, which has now been exposed by the Grenfell Tower fire, to answer for their failures in Phase 2.’