Grenfell: who failed, really?

This evening there was a half-hour Channel 4 Dispatches programme about the role of the fire brigade in the Grenfell Tower disaster in 2017, in which more than 70 people died when the tower block they lived in went up in flames. In the build-up to this I saw a number of comments on social media that they should be criticising the council or tenant management organisation for allowing the flammable cladding blocks to be put on the tower rather than the ‘heroic’ fire brigade who tried to fight it. One comment was that the failings of the fire brigade were being investigated much sooner than the decisions surrounding the renovation and the use of the cladding which accelerated the fire beyond the block where the fire should have been contained.

Yet, the programme revealed that after the Lakanal House tower block fire in 2009, the coroner recommended that the fire brigade invest in new training so that advice to residents to stay in their flats in the event of a fire not be given if there is risk that it might spread, but the service decided that its present training was sufficient. This was not a decision taken by individual fire-fighters or call handlers but by the top-ranking officials. A call handler is blameless because after all, they do not have a live video feed of what is going on at the tower; they would not know that the fire had already spread beyond the 4th floor and was climbing up the building. However, there should not be a blanket policy of “stay put” which does not change when residents report over the phone that the fire is coming up the building, and certainly call handlers should not still be under the impression that they were dealing with a fire on the 4th floor when it had in fact spread much further.

Worse, towards the end, we saw the commissioner hide behind the heroism of her officers to dodge questions about decisions taken by the top brass. According to Matt Wrack, the Fire Brigades Union’s general secretary, his union warned the House of Commons about the risk of cladding fires as far back as 1999. Nobody doubts that fire-fighters who risk their lives to protect and save members of the public are heroes, but it is quite right that their superiors be held to account for their much less heroic decisions when a major, fatal fire leads to recommendations that are ignored, leading to a much bigger disaster.

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