Grenfell residents ‘were never told to evacuate’
AT THE INQUIRY into the June 2017 fire, 999 operators stated that due to a policy not to recontact callers, residents were not called back to be told to evacuate when the policy changed.
When the inquiry last resumed, hearings focused ‘on the factual narrative of the events’, including ‘existing fire safety and prevention measures’, ‘where and how the fire started’, the ‘development of the fire and smoke’, and how they ‘spread from its original seat to other parts of the building’. Two extra panel members were added during the second stage, Prime Minister Theresa May changing her mind after ‘originally opposing’ appointing people with ‘the skills to examine the cultural and community reasons behind the fire’.
She also noted it was ‘on course’ to receive 400,000 documents, with 183,000 of 330,000 received thus far reviewed by the inquiry team. A ‘significant volume’ of documentation ‘will be disclosed’ during the first phase, and earlier this year, chair Sir Martin Moore-Bick appointed assessors to look at housing, local government and technical matters.
Two days of hearings took place dealing with ‘case management issues’ including proposed timetables, ‘matters concerning witnesses and the disclosure of evidence’. Sir Martin was also looking to produce an initial report explaining the ‘immediate cause and spread’ of the fire, as well as an ‘assessment of the evacuation process’.
Recently, the inquiry began looking at the ‘factual narrative’ of the events, with expert witnesses describing the various safety failures in the tower and a ‘culture of non compliance’. After the inquiry resumed once more, a fire station manager stated that ‘vital’ plans for the tower were not able to be found in the lobby of the building.
The Independent has now reported on the inquiry’s interview with Alexandra Norman, the most senior supervisor in the control centre at the time the fire started. London Fire Brigade (LFB) has a policy ‘not to re-contact callers’, so trapped residents in the tower who had been told by operators to ‘stay in their homes’, were only told that the stay put policy had been revoked ‘if they happened ring again’, according to the news outlet.
On the night, hundreds of calls to the control room in Stratford were ‘overwhelming’ the fire service, and Ms Norman said that it would have been ‘impossible’ to ring everyone back. Head lawyer of the inquiry Richard Millett asked her how residents could know the evacuation had been ordered if not contacted, and she replied that ‘that is a really hard one, but with the amount of calls we had on that night still coming in and the amount of calls we had already received, we would not be able to continue taking 999 calls’.
She also noted that ‘the hope would be that those callers would be calling us back to say conditions had worsened so we could give them that advice’, to which Mr Millett asked: ‘So you were relying on them to call back in?’, and to which she replied: ‘At that point, yes.’ The control room was initially staffed by 11 people, but received more calls requiring fire survival guidance ‘that night than in all of the previous decade across the capital’.
As the situation got more severe, other control rooms nationwide began helping with calls, and Ms Norman told the inquiry that she was ‘shocked’ to see how quickly the fire developed. She spoke with a number of eventual victims, and on being asked by Mr Millett whether there was a ‘specific reason’ operators would not re contact individuals with the change of policy, she said that ‘it would depend on the amount of callers you needed to call back, the amount of calls coming into the control room.
‘If you have got lots and lots and lots of calls waiting to be answered and you have taken hundreds of calls already, it would be impossible to search through every single call to find the telephone number to re-contact them’. Ms Norman had never worked during an emergency where ‘she needed to ring someone back with updated advice’, and said that her training ‘dealt neither with any changes in survival guidance nor how to manage a major fire with numerous callers’.
The inquiry was also told that the control room ‘did not initially realise how catastrophically the fire had spread’, because the Stratford location ‘lacked access to live helicopter footage’. Crews on scene also did not tell the control room about the increasing severity ‘until most of the building was engulfed’, Ms Norman commented.