LFB commissioner testifies at Grenfell inquiry

LFB commissioner testifies at Grenfell inquiry

THE INQUIRY saw Dany Cotton, commissioner of London Fire Brigade (LFB), admit that she had no knowledge of cladding risks despite an LFB presentation created only a year before the fire.

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. It then heard from 999 operators that due to a policy not to recontact callers, residents were not told to evacuate when policy changed.

Most recently, one of the fire commanders stated that ‘the building let us all down’. The Guardian reported on Ms Cotton’s testimony, in which she stated that the fire was so unexpected that it was like ‘the space shuttle landing on the Shard’, though she conceded LFB had known about cladding fire risks beforehand.

She also admitted she had no knowledge of an internal presentation detailing cladding risks, and that she did not know about other cladding façade fires internationally previous to Grenfell. The internal presentation had been prepared in October 2016 for LFB by its own fire engineers and was shared among safety officers when Ms Cotton was director of safety and assurance, and she stated that she had not seen it, and that even since Grenfell had only ‘looked through it but I’ve not studied in detail’.

She also commented that she had no idea why it had not been distributed to watch managers or been seen by herself. Mr Millett asked if that did not ‘indicate a structural or cultural failure’ at LFB, to which she said she thought not, and he asked in turn whether Grenfell was ‘not the unexpected which you should be expecting’, to which Ms Cotton replied that ‘I wouldn’t develop a training package for a space shuttle landing on the Shard’.

She also insisted there was ‘no way’ firefighters could have been expected to know if cladding was flammable, and that they would not have been able to extinguish it. Her perspective was that it was ‘the responsibility of building inspectors, designers and builders to ensure that buildings performed as they should to allow firefighters to extinguish fires and rescue people’, but she also admitted she had not read government guidance from 2014 for fighting fires in high rises, which comments that ‘combustible material in voids and cavities and poor quality of construction can also contribute to the spread of fire and smoke beyond the compartment of origin’.

Ms Cotton said she knew this and officers were trained to look for it, but that it would be ‘impossible to train officers to recognise poor quality construction’, even though the guidance says that information should be gathered on cladding. To this, she said she was unaware this was the case but that it was ‘almost impossible’ to see what was used unless it was obvious.

She commented: ‘People will quite rightly have questions, but for me I could not be more proud of the absolute commitment and dedication of the firefighters […] they did it. They went in there, they worked as hard as they could to rescue as many people as they could. The difficult bit now is about people levelling criticism at them, when they put their lives on the line.’

Having comforted firefighters ‘broken down in my arms’, she said that she had ‘never seen a situation on the fire ground where firefighters were openly crying and distressed’, and admitted that a ‘woefully inadequate’ amount of information about the building had been available on LFB’s database, with this seven years out of date prior to the 2016 refurbishment and featuring no tactical plan.

Ms Cotton admitted this was a failure ‘but not a serious one’, as firefighters knew enough about the building ‘to do our best to respond to a terrible situation that we should never have been placed in’, though the absence of detailed plans was a ‘serious failure’. On the night of the fire, her role was monitoring officer providing support to the incident commander, and she could have taken command, but did not because she was ‘satisfied with the firefighting plan’.

On compartmentation, Ms Cotton said that she ‘had never experienced widespread compartmentation failure in a high-rise residential block’, and concluded: ‘I have had issues with my memory, which I believe is linked to the traumatic nature and sheer scale of the incident. I deliberately didn’t write any notes at the time of the incident, because I had such poor recall of the night’s events and I’d hoped they would improve.

‘I’m still finding it very difficult to look at visual images and have conversations about Grenfell. I’m still responsible for effectively running [LFB], and everything else that’s involved in that. It would be no good for me to fall apart.’