How the Grenfell fire spread

Originally published at: https://boingboing.net/2018/06/08/how-the-grenfell-fire-spread.html

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All the various evidence is very helpfully up on the Inquiry website.

The Fire Brigade Union’s opening statement has some relevant sections:

https://www.grenfelltowerinquiry.org.uk/evidence/fire-brigades-union-opening-statement

extract from the FBU statement re the 'Stay Put unless'' advice.

19)Control staff: The Inquiry may conclude they also confronted an impossible and
unprecedented situation for which their experience, procedures or training had
not prepared them. Many of them will be haunted by their memories of that night.
The Inquiry will doubtless ask when were control operators aware the fire had
spread from the 4th floor fire flat, up the exterior and back in again? What did they
know of the fire as it developed? Were they overwhelmed with fire survival guidance (FSG) calls? How many calls from Grenfell Tower had to be transferred to other control rooms? What information was provided to those other control rooms about the fireground? Until they were asked to advise occupants to “Get out if you can” at about 02:47, what other advice could they have properly given apart from “Stay put unless your flat is affected by fire and smoke in which case leave” (“Stay put unless”). As with the work of the firefighters on the fireground, the Inquiry is asked to weigh the advice which control operators gave in light of
their procedures and training, the long-standing successful use of “Stay put unless” coupled with FSG, and to bear in mind the difference between what can be seen with the benefit of hindsight and what was possible on the night.

20)Movinq from the “Stay Put unless” strategy: Dr Lane states that “…the primary consequence of the rainscreen cladding fire starting at Level 4, and spreading seven stories within 7 minutes, and 19 storeys within 12 minutes, was that it rendered the Stay Put strategy unfit for purpose before 01:26…” (Dr Lane at 2.11.135). The FBU invites the Inquiry to consider the difficulties and dangers of devising and implementing a phased or simultaneous evacuation plan on the fireground, on the one hand, and the continuous attempts to firefight, to undertake targeted search and rescues and to assist with evacuations in the meantime, the FBU reserves its position as to the precise time when the “Stay Put strategy” either could or should, even with the benefit of hindsight, have been discarded in preference for another strategy on the night.

21)No procedure to evacuate HRRBs:The FBU asks to the Inquiry to consider whether, there was a lack of planning for this scale of risk so that it should not have been left to firefighters to develop a strategy on the fire ground in face of a breach of compartmentation i.e. the fire breaking out of the kitchen window of Flat 16 igniting the façade and breaking back into another flat. Should there have been a procedure, embedded by training for operational firefighters and control staff alike, to safeguard the lives of those in the building when compartmentation was breached? Should such a procedure involve watching out for a failure of compartmentation, immediate escalation of the incident upon that risk materializing to mobilise sufficient resources for BA wearers to reach the upper levels and assist with evacuation, carry out search and rescue and firefighting operations as needed, immediate adjustment of the ‘Stay put unless’ strategy to implement a phased and/or simultaneous evacuation in tandem with firefighting to contain the spread of fire and targeted search and rescue operations. Should such a procedure be embedded by training and informed by pre-planning, adapted to the particular circumstances of particular high rise residential
buildings. Should it include extra resources for the initial attendance by the FRS, ensure an adequate watch is maintained for breach of compartmentation, the carefully controlled use of Extended Duration BA (‘EDBA’), the provision of fire escape hoods to assist in evacuation, access to all sides of the building and a discrete water supply for an aerial appliance and external firefighting, wet risers for internal firefighting and revised systems and improved training in the use of communications equipment at large scale incidents? The Inquiry may need expert help to consider what sort of procedure, pre-planning, training and
resources should be in place going forward, both in the short and medium term to
respond to a breach of compartmentation in an HRRB.

The basic gist is that the whole thing was a complete clusterfuck with the building being doomed by the time the fire brigade arrived BUT with that not being immediately obvious and with there being no plan envisaged for dealing with that.

Reading through the expert evidence, the whole point of fire safety planning for high-rise buildings is to ensure that what happened at Grenfell absolutely does not happen.

The building is required to be built so that a fire stays in the part of the building where they started and absolutely does not expand over the face of the building.

For the simple reason that if it does there is nothing that can be done to stop the whole building going up - and no way to get everyone out safely it it does.

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I’m all for cooperating with the authorities, but I cannot possibly imagine heeding advice to “stay put” in a BURNING BUILDING.

I just do not get this part of the story. Why was the fire service saying that, and why where the people doing that?

Edit: Loki’s tl;dr helps me see the point of view of the fire service, in the abstract where buildings work as designed.

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When authorities are right it looks like this:

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It might also help that the advice is apparently not simply “Stay Put” as it’s commonly shortened but rather “Stay put unless your flat is affected by fire or smoke in which case leave”.

Sometimes the last part is stated as “…leave if it appears safe to do so” which was apparently a real problem because the halls and stairwell were filled with toxic and very hot smoke so a lot of people apparently said they did not feel they could leave and they may very well have been right.

relevant extract from Dr Lane's report

I have explained that it is my opinion that the Stay Put strategy had
substantially failed by 01:26, with conditions on the lobbies already a
challenge before 01:20 on some floors, and the conditions in the stair and
many of the lobbies undergoing significant deterioration after 01:40.

2.16.4 The poor visibility present in the lobbies and stair would have reduced the
speed at which people could travel, therefore increasing the time required to
make an escape and increasing the duration of exposure to the products of fire
(smoke and heat). This is in addition to the way-finding difficulties presented
by reductions in visibility.

2.16.5 These factors on their own, or in combination, appear to have discouraged
residents from evacuating independently. This is of particular concern to me,
when considering the significant reduction in evacuation rates after 01:40, as
compared with the first 40 minutes of the fire.

2.16.6 The effect of heat - where temperatures exceeded 150°C - can be tolerated for
only very short periods of time. They would cause immediate pain to any
exposed skin. Based on the current evidence these temperatures appear to
have occurred in the stair over Levels 13 -16, potentially after 04:00.

2.16.7 'If that was the case, the immediate physical pain caused by these
temperatures would have prevented some individuals from attempting to enter
the stair between Level 13 — 16, or descend below Level 16 where one was
already in the stair, at that time.

2.16.8 The impact of toxicity from the smoke which filled the lobbies and stair, was
a significant issue during the fire. Smoke contains a number of toxic
asphyxiate gases in potentially lethal concentrations and smoke also contains
sensory irritants. The asphyxiate gases could cause a slowing of escape by
reduced awareness or could cause incapacitation or death. The sensory
irritants, which cause symptoms to humans on exposure, could slow
evacuation by impairing vision, causing a burning pain or reducing breathing
rates, as well as pulmonary oedema (a build-up of fluid in the lungs).

2.16.9 The combination of poor visibility and sensory irritants when residents
opened their flat entrance doors to try to enter lobbies, would have been a
significant deterrent to escape. This is particularly the case when the
guidance being issued from the 999 calls was to Stay Put - the lobby
conditions would have emphasised to some that this was indeed the safer
option.

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Or:

leading to:

image

rather than:

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Couldn’t have said it better myself. This is a case where a combination of bad design decisions (not just the cladding but also the insulation and stairwell) added up to a horrific and fast-moving situation that the fire brigade could not envision.

Related, I also found the following article interesting. It presents something of a counter-narrative to the idea that the local Tory council (and its many non-Tory employees) dropped the ball during and immediately after the fire when it came to looking after the residents (before and in the longer-term, of course, is a different matter):

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Yes, I think the Council did on balance a pretty good job after the fire. Any organisation is going to be overwhelmed with something like that.

Even before hand, I find it hard to criticise them much (subject to a major caveat set out below) given that the TMO had instructed people who are supposed to know about fire safety in high-rise buildings and what was on the building was supposed to be safe.

Looking at the expert evidence, the council’s building control people have to be pretty concerned though given they apparently signed off on something that the experts all agree could never possibly have met building regs’ requirements to “adequately resist the spread of fire”.

Really interesting article by the way - I’d never have come across that on my own, thanks for linking.

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There are still several buildings with this cladding on them and Tory politicians have opposed removing it. Also did you see Teresa May’s visit to the site and her efforts to avoid meeting victims.

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Oh, I don’t say anything about either of those points but since you raise it, could you point to some info on

I’d be interested to see what possible justification they might put forward.

Theresa May’s visit was a particular triumph of PR but I can understand her apparent reluctance to meet victims. Being lynched is such a bad look for a PM.

A better politician would have been able to cope but Theresa May has never really managed to convince me that she’s actually a human being.

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Leaving aside the later installation of cladding that was manifestly unsafe for use on a highrise building, the initial design of the building with a single stairwell and the “stay put” advice given to residents depended on everything else going right. And that should never be part of your plan for emergencies.

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It goes a little deeper than that to the reason the cosmetic cladding was put on in the first place: to shield the area’s more affluent residents from having to look at a prominent unclad 1970s brutalist eyesore and thus be reminded that poor people who tend to live in such structures lived amongst them. That’s Tory thinking through and through.

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Yes, that’s true. The cladding (and the insulation) turned a perfectly safe if allegedly ugly building into a death trap.

However, the people who decided to do that were running the building on behalf of the occupants (I know a lot of the occupants felt they were doing a really bad job of listening to the occupants but it wasn’t the Council making those decisions - at least not directly).

Also, even with the reasoning for the cladding being to whatever degree aesthetic, the architect and contractors were still supposed to come up with a safe way of doing that.

No one set out to say, “put up this cladding, it’ll look nice even if it does turn the place into a fire hazard”.

There was clearly some element of “Let’s not spend the money on the more expensive safer 'non-combustible” insulation" but that was still on the basis that the cheaper version was still ‘safe’ within the terms of fire safety requirements.

It evidently wasn’t but that is also the case on blocks up and down the country - many of which are owned and occupied by quite rich people.

That’s the real horror here. This is not an isolated case. It is just the only one so far where a tragic fire has happened. It is not the only place it could happen.

So many buildings are apparently horrendously unsafe because at some point, somewhere it was deemed that this totally unsafe way of covering buildings was in fact safe.

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  1. The cost is non-zero
  2. The only people who would benefit are poor
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In the early reports that we’ve been hearing from the enquiry, it looks like people are trying to shift the blame to the fire brigade, and it looks like they are getting some traction.

It turns out that the advice “stay put unless your flat is affected” was wrong, but the emergency services weren’t to know that they should have been saying “get out at once- this is a badly repaired death trap that has had fuel attached to its sides” .

As originally designed, with proper repairs and maintenance, the tower was sub-optimal but should have been safe. Instead, insanely lax building regulations (to the extent that builders were signing off on their own fire certificates) , a drive to lower costs to a minimum (those combustible panels were deliberately chosen as a cheaper option), and a history of shoddy repair work on the tower all combined to kill.

I’d hate for the only people who were trying to save lives be blamed for a catalogue of failures by central and local government.

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And apparently the smoke evacuation system was broken. Usually the firefighters can clear smoke one floor at a time, get people out and then move up to use the in-built system on the next floor. Apparently they are designed to work this way, one floor at a time, but Grenfell’s was not functional.

Very interesting Radio 4 Today interview today with firefighting expert who said in effect that …

‘we get told what systems each building has / what it is made of etc etc and this determines the advice for each building indivdually. Some tower blocks have “stay put” protocols, others may not.’

The point is Grenfell in reality on the day resembled nothing like what the fire brigade had been told it did at the time it was built / the advice was given, and the many ways this was the case will be uncovered by the enquiry but smoke evacuation systems, bady fitted new windows, flammable surface panels, etc, are all part of the mix

ETA

Yeah, this was the gist of it, with the added note that what they HAD been told, if true and maintained as such, would have meant ‘stay put’ was safest. The fire would not have spread so fast and each floor could have been cleared of smoke as needed ( (and possibly it would only have been the floor where the fire started)

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Nor John Crace (Guardian political sketch writer and first to coin the term ‘Maybot’)

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Well, that’s rather the point.

johnnyFresh claimed Tory politicians had opposed it being removed.

I haven’t seen anyone, Tory or otherwise, say the cladding should not be removed.

Can anyone point us to such a statement?

Labour made them walk it back, but…

Close but no cigar, I think.

That’s about whether central government should pay for the removal or whether local government should.

It’s about cost allocation rather than whether the work should take place.

I don’t know of anyone who has said that the cladding should stay on.