FBU criticises ‘government complacency’ over high rise fires

FBU criticises ‘government complacency’ over high rise fires

THE FIRE Brigades Union (FBU) has stated that the government has ‘done nothing to adequately prepare’ fire and rescue services (FRSs) for an incident similar to the Grenfell Tower fire.

In a press release, the FBU stated that ‘nearly two years’ after the fire, the government’s ‘complacency’ over preparing FRSs for similar fires has been illustrated in a ‘postcode lottery of preparedness’ nationwide. This includes certain FRSs planning to send ‘as few as two’ appliances to high rise fires, with the FBU criticising Fire Minister Nick Hurd for having ‘repeatedly misled the public’ about preparedness.

It also claimed that he has ‘grasped neither the severity nor the basic details’ of the risks posed, and it called on the government to end the ‘postcode lottery’ of public safety through implementing changes. These include a national review to ‘understand the scale of failed compartmentation in residential buildings’, and national standards for predetermined attendance – the number of firefighters and appliances initially sent – for high rise fires.

The FBU noted that Mr Hurd has ‘repeatedly claimed’ that FRSs are prepared for a ‘Grenfell-type’ fire, and it rebuts this by stating that only three of 48 FRSs outside London ‘have been contacted directly’ by the Home Office for information on preparedness ‘for such an incident’. Another eight have been contacted by the National Fire Chiefs Council, and one by the Welsh government.

Correspondence was shared between the FBU and Mr Hurd, with a letter from him to the FBU parliamentary group stating that local FRSs ‘are sufficiently resourced to respond to a high rise fire similar to Grenfell’ in May 2018. In a reply to a request for clarification, Mr Hurd ‘backtracks’, with the FBU stating he is ‘only committing when compartmentation is successful’.

It shared his letter to FBU general secretary Matt Wrack in July 2018, in which Mr Hurd stated that ‘my officials have confirmed that all [FRSs] would be able to deal with a fire in a compartment in a high rise building’. A further letter to Mr Wrack in September 2018 stated that FRSs ‘have at least a limited high rise firefighting capacity and would respond to a fire in a high rise compartment, but response alone is not sufficient to deal with a Grenfell type incident’.

Finally, in a written answer to fellow MP Stephen Morgan in March 2019, Mr Hurd wrote that ‘fire and rescue authorities have the resources they need to undertake their important work’. The FBU claims that Mr Hurd ‘appears oblivious to one of the key factors’ behind Grenfell, which was the ‘failure of compartmentation’, and that the government ‘has failed to assess the risk’.

On the ‘postcode lottery’ of preparedness, the FBU shared data that demonstrates the ‘detrimental effects of the fragmentation’ of FRSs, as with ‘no national-level infrastructure or standards for fire, government ministers have no real national oversight of this important element of public safety’. Predetermined attendance nationwide varies from ‘as few as one’ appliance to seven, based on the best case scenario ‘where compartmentation has prevented the fire from spreading’.

Outside of London – where 40 appliances were sent to Grenfell – data showed that resources ‘are so stretched’ that FRSs ‘would not be able to mobilise anywhere near that scale. It claimed that the government has ‘done nothing’ to ‘address the concerns of residents’, and has ‘failed to launch a national review’ of stay put.

With hundreds of buildings still clad in flammable aluminium composite material, the government ‘still has not begun assessing the risk from other flammable cladding’, and the FBU pointed out that there is also ‘still no adequate national picture of buildings’ where compartmentation has been ‘undermined in other ways’. The union concluded by noting that FRS cuts continue two years after Grenfell, with funding from central government cut by 15% from 2016/17 to 2019/20.

Mr Wrack stated: ‘We’re shocked at the utter complacency of the Fire Minister. 72 people died at Grenfell Tower, a fire for which London Fire Brigade had not planned. Yet the minister still does not grasp the severity, or even the basic details, of the risk across the country. It’s no longer possible to claim that fire like Grenfell is unforeseeable.

‘Firefighters were placed in an impossible situation that night. But two years on, the government still has not provided the planning and resources necessary to prepare firefighters for what are now completely foreseeable risks. It is extremely worrying that as part of their pre-determined attendances, some services only plan to send two engines to a fire in a high rise building.’

He added: ‘That is nowhere near enough to tackle a blaze which occurs when compartmentation fails, like it did at Grenfell. Fire and rescue services are clearly basing their pre-determined attendances upon a situation where compartmentation works.  But at Grenfell it was the failure of compartmentation that caused the fire to spread so rapidly and virtually none are prepared for such an incident.

‘Even with this optimistic assumption, the levels of attendance are mostly utterly inadequate. The difference in pre-determined attendances is also deeply worrying – there is no reason why which part of the country a building is located in should determine the safety of its residents. Grenfell proved the UK government’s utter complacency on fire safety. We need robust national standards to make sure that the lessons from that night are applied everywhere.’