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A fire in a tower block in London spread to burn out the whole 27 storey building, with large loss of life, possibly almost 100 dead. The probable cause of the fire was said to be a faulty refrigerator in a 4th floor flat, followed by an astoundingly quick spread of the flames, involving recently applied insulation panels on the external walls of the building, which ignited to cause a massive conflagration. Some residents threw out their children and themselves from the building, in sights that will be all too familiar after the Twin Towers. Others waved from windows asking for help, but there was no external way of bringing them down, and even water hoses could reach little further than the 6th floor.
Residents said that no alarms sounded; and that the advice they had been given was that they should stay in their flats behind their fire proof doors, which would keep them safe for at least an hour while the fire service, which arrived within 6 minutes, put out the blaze. In fact, the fire service was not able to deal with the fast-spreading fire, and many people were burned alive in their flats. Many bodies will never be recovered.
There are many facts which have come to the fore after this terrible event, with more coming out each day, and more when the official enquiry takes place. The first is that some electrical devices such as fridges and freezers are known previously to have exploded in people’s homes elsewhere, sometimes causing fatalities. This is rare, but is said to be a little higher with new environment-friendly coolants. If a malfunctioning fridge can cause a tower block to burn down then everything installed or stored in a flat will have to be monitored very carefully for ever. If the polyethylene core insulation cladding was the cause of the spread of the fire, as seems all too evident in the pictures taken of the conflagration, then either it was specified wrongly, or applied wrongly, or the established fire testing techniques and quality controls on building materials are at fault. Luxury flats in the Arabian Gulf and Australia have suffered similar fires, so there may be a world-wide problem with some external insulation panels. They are banned or restricted in Germany and the US.
There was no sprinkler system in the building, but it was built of concrete, and the internal compartmentalization of the apartments should have prevented the fire from spreading quickly. In fact, the external insulation may have bridged that protection by providing an inflammable chimney all around the building. The tower has 6 flats per floor, and only one internal staircase, meaning that any blockage of that staircase for any reason, including toxic smoke, builder’s materials or personal belongings, effectively prevents emergency exit. The internal staircase debouches into the same common ground floor lounge where the 2 lift shafts debouche, so a moderate fire in that lounge would cut off both exit routes. Fireproof separation of the exit routes would be preferable. The external entrance to that ground floor also had no covering roof even for a few yards of the walkway, so blazing insulating materials and debris fell on those leaving and entering. As the fire took hold there were shattering explosions, with blue flames, which might have been the partly installed new domestic gas supplies in not-yet-covered gas pipes, or possibly propane gas cylinders used by some residents for cooking. Which of these is unknown, but explosions were reported, and the blue flames noted.
The standard policy of fire-fighters walking up smoke-filled stairs carrying heavy equipment is called into question by this blaze. It reveals that fire safety is based on a “just in time” approach, in which any interruption of the supply chain can be fatal. Even a short pause to assemble the fire team and to brief them on procedures may have been enough, in this instance, to prevent any control being gained over the fire. No structure should be that vulnerable.
Also in doubt is the concept of standard advice. Staying in a relatively fire-proof flat may seem better than wandering in a smoke-filled corridor, but it depends on a very prompt and effective firefighting. Running out immediately has its risks, but gives more certainty.
The better advice might be to give general principles and ask people to use common sense. For example, during a hotel fire in Scandinavia many guests stayed in their rooms, having put wet towels at the foot of the doors to their rooms and wetting the door to prevent it burning. Many suffocated. Those who, against all advice, broke open the windows to their room gained extra oxygen and survived. However, the advice that one should be flexible comes across as no advice at all, so I can understand why it is not given.
Never mentioned is the option of training all residents to fight small domestic fires with fire extinguishers and fire proof blankets. Fire services generally don’t like such advice, but it is within the capabilities of most adults, given some training. It is worth having a higher level of preparedness. However, that sense of self-effectiveness is not the cultural norm currently.
Anyway, we have a set of official procedures which cannot cope for particular individual circumstances, which is not surprising, because no set of procedures can deal with every new event. The advice was probably appropriate for a building without cladding, though a sprinkler system would probably have improved survivability in all circumstances. The fire was a test of quick thinking, and gut level responses. The instinct of flight was validated. Those who behaved well, and waited, did not have their trust repaid.
When dealing with safety, it is very difficult to draw out a full fault tree. The cladding may not have been seen as crucial to fire safety, but merely a surface characteristic, improving insulation and cosmetic appearance. However, a proper installation would have fire breaks between floors. It is very hard to anticipate all new events, and to understand the interactions of changes in the original design characteristics of the building. Perhaps artificial intelligence will come to the rescue when simulating safety advice, but there will always be unintended consequences to any change.
In summary, the building was unsafe, many people died, and the causes need to be identified and remedied quickly.
While the fire was still burning the following day, it became evident that a political debate would begin. Grenfell Tower is Council housing, that is, subsidized housing. Councils are responsible for housing everyone in their borough, and get central government support through a complicated procedure, in which is it not clear how much flexibility is allowed to local Councils. Councils say this limits their borrowing powers, and gives them responsibilities but a limited budget. Central government intends to eventually reimburse those boroughs who have new residents wanting subsidized accommodation. That is to say, a person seeking subsidized housing can seek it in any borough, and people usually prefer urban centres with good facilities, near where their friends are.
London is under more housing pressure than the rest of the country. Hence London boroughs are coping with free market prices, and having to find ways of financing council accommodation at subsidized prices. Moving people out to cheaper locations is rarely possible, and is seen as a political machination. Central government is supposedly in charge of regulating immigration, and local government is in charge of housing all who request it, whatever the inward flows.
Now add yet another national political layer of contention. The residents of the tower were mostly immigrants. Immigration has increased massively since 1997, so much so that the Government can no longer be sure how many immigrants are present in the United Kingdom. Here are the best available numbers from an independent group critical of immigration policy, who are usually accurate. Since 2003 there have been a net 250,000 migrants entering England, and virtually all of them are in urban centers, a majority in London. Newspapers today have been discussing an estimate that illegal immigration is running at 150,000 a year. Official figures are lower.
Whatever the numbers, there is no justification for unsafe housing, but it is clear that current numbers put a strain on all public facilities. Forgotten in the general discussion is that this particular disaster happened because the relevant Borough was spending money on this tower block. The specification and workmanship may very well have been wrong, but money was being spent.
Nonetheless the residents of this block and others like it understandably complain that they have been given totally unsafe housing, and some politicians imply it is because of their poverty and ethnic background. Some point to the residents of the rich Borough as not having given council tenants the safety standards they deserve. The Borough claim they have met the relevant standards.
The Borough has not explained that they did not determine the national policies which resulted in them having many immigrants who have to be housed in their borough at public expense. Any Borough faces this dilemma: they are in the front line of housing, and must bend to national policies, and seek the necessary funding later. The Borough did not invite the immigrants but must provide them with housing and services and also seek to get their votes at local elections.
As far as can be determined, there have been very similar cladding fires in buildings owned and used by very wealthy people, so it is not primarily a contrast between private and public housing, but the cladding in this particular case seems to have been slightly cheaper and also more flammable than other versions, which suggests corners were cut on safety. In keeping with the current way of investigating events, investigations are being done at breakneck speed by journalists. The facts being unearthed may be right, or may be wrong, but the news rolls on with apparent disclosures and denunciations. At a time of tremendous emotion and anger the arguments have become savage, with accusations of manslaughter already being voiced. Sad times, with ugly undercurrents.
These claims and counter-claims have lit a new fire, which I hope will not be larger than the first.