It seems hard to believe that it’s been half a decade since we watched our TVs in horror as a high-rise block in Kensington became a raging inferno. Today, the remains of Grenfell Tower, cloaked in banners with green hearts of remembrance, still haunts London’s skyline.
The lives lost on that most tragic of nights brought about intense scrutiny on how it could have happened and how we can stop it from ever happening again.
In this piece, we revisit the UK’s most devastating residential fire since WW2. We look at how the blaze took hold, the failures that allowed it to spread throughout the building with such ferocity, and the steps developers can take to ensure Grenfell remains the last incident of its kind.
In the early hours of Wednesday 14 June 2017, the Grenfell resident of Flat 16 was awoken by the fire alarm within his fourth floor apartment. First alerting his lodgers and neighbours to the alarm, the group entered the kitchen to find smoke billowing from the fridge-freezer. Immediately they called the London Fire Brigade (LFB). The time was 00:54.
By 01:00 the first fire engines were at the scene but because the hoses had to be connected to the building’s internal dry riser, it wasn’t until 01:15 that firefighters could begin actively tackling the blaze.
By this time, flames were penetrating Flat 16’s window frame and the surrounding cladding was starting to ignite. Other residents who had begun dialling 999 were instructed to remain in their apartments in line with the then standard policy for high-rise fires. The premise behind this policy was that each apartment in a high-rise tower block should be fireproofed from those it shares perimeters with. Any fire should be contained.
Just 15 minutes later at 01:30, the fire was already out of control and ascending up the building at a rate witnesses described as “terrifying”.
Within the tower, multiple fire doors had failed to close and seal properly, meaning smoke began to spread from affected apartments into the lobbies and stairwells, trapping many of those residents who had yet to escape.
At 02:04, just over an hour since the first alarm was raised, the fire was declared a major incident.
40 fire engines were now on scene with some 250 firefighters attempting to control the blaze under a phalanx of police riot shields, arranged to protect them from debris that was now falling constantly.
Around 40 minutes later, the ‘stay put’ policy was abandoned in favour of a full evacuation. Only 36 residents managed to escape following this decision.
Meanwhile, firefighters within the building were battling zero visibility and extreme heat, LFB later admitting it had broken its own safety protocols of not entering a large building without knowing the risk of structural collapse.
By sunrise, all four sides of Grenfell Tower were ablaze and police were instructing onlookers to contact anyone they knew who might be inside via phone call, text, or social media and tell them to self-evacuate rather than wait for rescue.
It was not until June 16th – two days from the start of the fire that the Grenfell blaze was officially declared as extinguished.
In total, 72 people lost their lives in the tragedy with many of the survivors and first responders reporting to have since suffered from severe PTSD.
Although it was Grenfell’s cladding (which we’ll come to later) that exacerbated the fire, it isn’t what started it – it was the fridge-freezer within Flat 16. However, later tests on models of the same appliance concluded that it met all legal safety requirements and wasn’t – as was widely reported – a faulty product.
It soon came to light that Grenfell Tower residents had made repeated complaints about power surges that routinely caused appliances to overheat and begin smoking. Not only did the local authority know about these surges, it had even paid compensation to those residents whose appliances had been damaged beyond repair.
Despite knowledge of the surges they continued to occur and their cause was never formally identified.
Subsequent investigations did reveal that the fridge-freezer’s compressor relay wiring appeared not to have been tightly fitted which likely created added electrical resistance. In turn, this could have led to overheating and the fatal ignition of the wire’s outer plastic insulation.
Though we’ll never know for sure how the fire started, we do know why it spread with such horrifying momentum.
Over the course of 2015/2016, Grenfell Tower underwent a major renovation which included a new aluminium composite cladding that wrapped the entire building. Foam plates of insulation made from a material called polyisocyanurate (more commonly referred to as PIR) were placed in the gap between the cladding and Grenfell’s outer walls.
PIR insulation is a known flammable material that gives off toxic cyanide fumes when set alight. As such, safety experts ahead of the renovation cautioned that it was only suitable for use with a non-combustible cladding. This caution was not heeded and the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea approved the type of aluminium composite cladding that contains polyethylene – described as a ferociously combustible plastic.
When the renovations were completed in 2016, Grenfell Tower had effectively been encased in kindling.
Less an oversight, it seems the materials used on Grenfell Tower were chosen as a result of significant cost pressures for the renovation. By opting for the combustible, polyethylene-infused aluminium composite cladding, the Council saved £293,368.
As the embers of Grenfell Tower still glowed, a question on many minds was, “How many other high-rise buildings are fitted with flammable cladding?”
The answer to that question is the same today as it was back in 2017 – approximately 10,000. And that’s just in England.
However, change is afoot. £5bn in public funds has been ring-fenced to finance the removal of combustible cladding on all residential buildings over 18m (or six storeys) high in England with the devolved administrations of Scotland and Wales adopting their own approaches.
Legislation has also been amended. Tough new measures will allow the government to block planning permission and building control sign-off on developments found to be using inappropriate cladding materials. Effectively it will prevent non-compliant developers from building and selling new properties.
There is also now a total ban on the type of metal composite material with polyethylene core used on Grenfell. The ban applies to all new buildings and buildings undergoing renovations, regardless of their height or intended usage.
In fact, the ban extends to nearly all combustible materials, including plastic and timber cladding, and high-pressure laminates on the facades of residential buildings higher than 11m. Though developers will still be able to use some combustible materials on buildings between 11m and 18m, this will only be following the successful completion of rigorous, large-scale testing.
In the wake of the tragedy, an independent review of Building Regulations and Fire Safety reported that the whole system of regulation, from the wording of rules to their enactment, was not fit for purpose. Indeed, that it “left room for those who want to take shortcuts to do so”.
Four key issues were identified as underpinning the system failure:
These damning findings not only stirred the construction industry into approaching fire safety with a renewed vigour during the build phase but also how it approached completed builds.
Among the preferred safeguarding options has been the use of Fire Watch services.
Fire watch services are performed by accredited safety experts who devise solutions with the primary aim of keeping a building’s occupants safe and ensuring developers and building owners are compliant with UK regulations and legislation.
It is a service particularly favoured for sites that manage an increased risk of fire due to, for example, the deactivation of alarm and sprinkler systems, the performance of ‘hot work’ (such as welding), and ahead of demolitions.
However, with the industry still under the shadow of Grenfell, Fire Watch services are also used much more within any high-rise and large footprint premises, even where such risks as those laid out above are not immediate.
It can vary between providers but generally a Fire Watch service will incorporate measures for fire prevention, detection, and evacuation, while ensuring all areas of a property are compliant with current fire safety legislation and regulations. The service itself should comply with UK HSE legislation and the Regulatory Reform (Fire Safety) Order 2005 (RRO).
Typically, a provider will deploy a team of dedicated fire watch officers whose focus remains exclusively on managing the building’s risk of fire. This often includes the option of deploying a professional fire warden who assumes responsibility for supporting ongoing fire safety management and contributes to human safety in the event of an evacuation.
A comprehensive fire watch service can include:
Waking Watch Service: The implementation and enactment of reassuring and rapid response strategies to fire safety issues, designed in conjunction with building owners, landlords, or managers.
Fire Extinguisher Maintenance: Diligent extinguisher inspections that ensure all appliances are up to date and meet servicing requirements to the BS5306 standard.
Emergency Lighting Maintenance: In the event the main power supply fails, emergency lighting will activate to illuminate safety signs and provide a sufficiently high level of lighting to ensure people can identify the safest escape routes.
Alarm Installation & Servicing: Bespoke to a building’s requirements, modern alarm systems can be designed, supplied, installed, and maintained.
Fire Risk Assessment: Fire Risk Assessments are a legal requirement for identifying all fire hazards and potential risks within a building and Fire Watch Officers support with their creation and enactment.
The scale of human tragedy that the Grenfell Tower fire represented remains a painful scar in Britain. This type of tragedy should never happen on our soil.
But it did. And it reminded us all that fire safety is never, ever to be approached with complacency.
It is the direct responsibility of developers, building managers, and council leaders to ensure another Grenfell can never happen again. By rigorously complying with updated regulations, prioritising safety over savings, and by engaging with professional, third-party fire safety experts, we can help make sure that the scenes in Kensington are the last we’ll see of its kind.
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