On the morning of 14th June I was standing in a meeting room in London, waiting to give a presentation in front of some important clients. My phone started beeping, and I quickly turned it off, silencing any further interruptions. It was only a few hours later that I had the chance to read the message and reply. It was from my mum and it read “You’re not in that building that’s on fire are you?” She knew I was in London and she was talking about the Grenfell Tower fire The only hint I had seen that anything was amiss was that some trains on the Central Line weren’t stopping at White City station because of a “local fire”. Given how even suspicion of a small fire can shut down an entire station, I thought nothing of it. I was in the centre of Mayfair, in a luxury office, speaking to millionaires, while firefighters were scrabbling to keep things under control. It’s only looking back at the day that I realise I had first hand experience about what it’s like to be insulated from the brutal realities of inadequate housing policy.
In the time since the fire, an inquiry has begun which has started revealing more of the details behind the fire. At the time, the cladding was discussed a great deal as one of the main contributors to the fire, and while it is certainly one of the major factors, it is not the only one, and this post argues that even without the cladding, a disaster was going to happen sooner or later. I also don’t want to discuss austerity too much, although that also played a major role. The root cause of the conditions that lead to the fire was not so much of investment (this was in the richest borough in the UK, after all), but the lack of oversight and coordination.
The fire itself started on the 4th floor of Grenfell Tower. The tower itself has 24 floors, with the fourth being the first residential floor. It was a hot summer day, so many windows were open, allowing the fire to spread to the exterior, and back inside, traveling up the outside of the building. This is of course where the cladding becomes a major factor, allowing the fire to spread around all four faces of the tower, and having plentiful access to fresh air. In some sense, the scale of the disaster was due to bad luck. If the fire had started much further up the building, then there may have been no fatalities. The fire also took place during Ramadan, and with it being during midsummer it was at the most difficult times to fast. There were more people awake that night than usual, so if the fire took place a month later, the death count could have been significantly higher. Estimates of the number of fatalities ranged from over a hundred, which later decreased to around 80, and the current estimate, based from evidence from a number of sources, is 70.
I live in a tower block myself, which is a mere 12 storeys high. After the fire, I’d occasionally look up from the ground floor and try to imagine another 12 storys on top. That image seemed so unsustainable, a 24 floor tower reaching up far above all the surrounding buildings. I tried to imagine daily life, with the residents’ frustration when the lifts failed, or their children playing in the corridor because it was too far to go all the way down to green areas. Then I tried to imagine what that would be like in the fire. How many fire engines would be needed? Where would they be positioned? How can you evacuate a building that big, while the fire fighters ascend inside, using the one and only staircase? Even when I’ve got a block of flats, my block, standing in front of me, it’s hard to imagine what the Grenfell Tower fire would be like.
There were quite a few questions about tower blocks all over the country immediately after the fire. Someone asked if our block had cladding on it, to which the answer was a somewhat sarcastic “It’s concrete.” Our tower block was generally considered to not be important enough to warrant cladding. Even so, we do have plastic window casings that run all the way up the South face, so perhaps we’re not completely safe. Across the river Irwell, there were several tower blocks that did have cladding. You can see them as your drive up the A6 to Blackpool. They were among the first to be identified as needing renovation. In all this, there was one term which kept coming up again and again which bugged me, and I couldn’t work out where I’d heard it before. That term was “dry riser”, which is fairly meaningless if you don’t know what it means. It’s a simple device, which consists of a pipe that goes up the inside of a building. This allows firefighters to attach a water source at the ground floor, and use it at any floor they choose to. (A wet riser is already full of water.) Where had I see those words before? It turns out that every time I entered or left my flat, I passed the building’s dry riser. It was less than a metre from my flat door, and it’s something I had not even noticed until after I’d had spent hours glued to the news.
How could it be that my tower block had a façade of bare concrete, and a built in dry-riser, whereas the Grenfell Tower had been wrapped in highly flammable material and had no internal protections? The answer is not just austerity, it’s a combination of many areas of failing safety measures, which individually would have not lead to disaster. The structure of the buildings, their management, as well as the local fire response services were different, and it’s these differences that lead to disaster in one case, and banality in the other.
The structure of the building itself has already been discussed. Grenfell Tower was built four years after the Ronan Point tower collapse, where a gas explosion had caused the entire corner of the tower to collapse. This meant that Grenfell Tower was built to be strong (and stable) and could stand for another 100 years. The design specified a single central staircase, which in many other countries would have been illegal. Given that the population of the tower were descending the stairs, while the firefighters were ascending, trailing hoses as they went, it’s not hard to see the single staircase as a major flaw in the design.
My own building also has only one staircase, but the situation is less dire, given that it is half the size of Grenfell, but also because it has a dry riser, whereas Grenfell does not. That means that the firefighters cannot rely on the building itself to help with the fighting of the fire. They have a limited (although generous) supply of hosing, and limited space in the stairwell to transport the water up to the higher floors. Every decision to take another hose up the stairwell means taking up precious space in the building’s only escape route. Even if the firefighters only used half of the staircase for their hoses, the stories coming out of the building were chilling. People could not see through the smoke as they escaped, and some collapsed. Some of those who died on the way down would have created an obstacle for the others further up. Even worse, not all the people who died during their escape were not noticed missing until the rest of their families had escaped and performed a head count.
If the combination of the single staircase and lack of dry riser caused problems, surely the firefighters could have focused their efforts on the exterior of the building where the fire was, and the fire could be contained. Unfortunately there is yet another failure of design and planning. Grenfell Tower is 67 metres high, and the tallest firefighting platform in London can reach 32 metres. Even with the hoses pointed directly up, the firefighters can still only reach about half of the exterior of the tower. Taller platforms were available for purchase, but the London Fire Brigade did not invest in one during their most recent renewal of the fleet. This is where austerity plays its part in the story, with Boris Johnson enforcing cuts that lead to the closure of 10 fire stations and making over 500 firefighters unemployed.
Given the situation with the failings of the design of the building, and the insufficient resources of the local fire brigade, why was the decision made to add cladding to the building in the first place, and who was responsible for making that decision? It wasn’t the only short-sighted decision about fire safety in Grenfell Tower. The gas supply for the tower had been fitted in the months leading up to the fire, and two thirds of the pipes were exposed, despite requirements that they be contained in fire-retardent boxing. Even if the cladding had not caught fire, the bare gas pipes always had the potential to cause a serious fire. On top of all these poor choices, no sprinklers were added to the building.
The decision to add cladding is particularly disturbing. Proposals were put before residents in 2012, and they were approved, given that the cladding consisted of zinc and a mineral rich fire retardent polyethylene core. This was changed in 2014 to cladding consisting of aluminium and a polyethylene core, the materials that later failed government tests (although were within tolerances at the time of renovation). The change in material saved nearly £300,000. Although Grenfell Tower is owned by the Borough of Kensington and Chelsea, it is managed by an “arms length” organisation, the Kensington and Chelsea Tenant Management Organisation (TMO). The inquiry has yet to publish its findings, but it seems likely that a large part of the failure to choose a suitable material was not taken in a single step, and that there was no clear oversight. At the point where the tenants were consulted, the decision was made to use a suitable, fire-retardant material. Somewhere between then and the final decision, the choice was changed, probably reviewed, and someone, somewhere, signed the final slip of paper, and they probably didn’t have access to all the information.
At the same there, there was the opportunity to add spinklers, but they were never added. They would have helped to contain the fire internally, giving people a greater opportunity to escape. At first, I didn’t consider this to be a major factor (and in any case, having sprinklers inside flats would probably lead to more problems than they would solve, as false alarms are much more common than real fires.) It was only when I heard about a phone call from one of the victims trapped in the upper floors that I realised how much of a difference they may have made. I tried to imagine what I would do in their situation. Would I barricade myself in a bathroom? Would I find a source of water?. How would I breathe if the windows were letting smoke? It was when I read that they said the floor was hot that I realised how bad the situation was. In those circumstances, sprinklers giving just a few more minutes to escape could make a huge difference. The ferocity of a fire that heats up the floor above must be held back if people are to be given a chance to escape.
So far I haven’t discussed the immediate cause of the fire, which was a faulty fridge freezer. As far as I can see, this isn’t particularly relevant. The fire could have started from a candle or a cigarette, or any faulty appliance. Given the environment, with the lack of a wet or dry riser, lack of sprinklers, exposed gas pipes, and flammable cladding, it seems obvious that any minor fire could lead to disaster.
As the inquiry continues, and publishes its results, we will know much more about how this disaster happened. For now, it’s enough to know that cuts to funding, slashing of contract budgets by the TMO, and lack of coordination are to blame for the combination of poor decisions that lead to the fire. This is very similar to another disaster that happened less than a mile away 18 years earlier. That other disaster was the Ladbroke Grove rail crash that killed 35 people. It was largely due to that crash and the Hatfield crash that lead to Railtrack, the private company responsible for managing rail infrastructure, to be taken into administration as Network Rail. Both the Ladbroke Grove and Hatfield crashes were caused by the same kind of arms-length management, sub-contracting, and obscure decision making processes with opaque accountability. We learned from those rail crashes and moved on to a safer and more robust system. We need to do the same for public housing. If we do not, there will be another easily avoidable disaster.
The Grenfell Tower fire was just one of many incidents, with the only difference being that it got out of control. With over four million people living in social housing in the UK, it’s only a matter of time before there is another accident. We need systems and policies which are much more tolerant of accidents and human error if we want these people to live in safety.