In the wake of the dreadful events of the Grenfell Tower fire, last June, it is critical to pick apart the web of analysis and misconceptions surrounding the events and make a clear plan for the future in which we can ensure a tragedy of this nature never happens again. The fire, on the 14th June 2017, took the lives of at least 71 people. The breadth and extent of the destruction means that the exact number of casualties remains unknown to this date.
The blaze began in the early hours of the morning as the result of a faulty fridge freezer in one of the flats. Rather than being contained to the flat, a combination of combustible cladding on the outside of the building and a lack of an internal sprinkler system, meant that the fire quickly spread up the exterior of the block and re-entered the top floors, gaining momentum.
It took a team of 250 firefighters and 70 fire engines over 60 hours to extinguish the entirety of the flames that engulfed the tower. By the time the fire had been contained, countless homes and lives had been destroyed.
While we cannot alter what transpired last June, we can safeguard against such situations happening in the future. In the aftermath of this catastrophe, it is our collective responsibility to assess what went wrong and use these critiques and assessments to ensure people are never again put in such a threatening position. This is our duty; both to those lost in the fire, and to those still living in fear over the security of their homes.
Analysis since the event has illuminated a number of factors inherent in the spread of the fire and intensity and reach of the blaze. The recent renovation on the block had seen the installation of a type of cladding that was combustible. This cladding accentuated the rapid growth of the fire and led to it spreading up the exterior of the building.
Perhaps an even greater failure of the buildings safety precautions was the complete lack of any sprinklers. Sprinklers provide an automatic and immediate fire response. If there had been a sprinkler system in the building, the initial fire in the flat would have been put out before it had a chance to spread.
Countless experts have since come forward to make the case for the importance of retrofitting buildings with sprinklers and their crucial role in reducing fire deaths. Alan Brinson, executive director of the European Fire Sprinkler Network, considers that “nothing compares to them in saving lives” during fires. Likewise, Stewart Kidd, former director of the Fire Protection Association, stated that if sprinklers had been installed in the tower, the blaze “certainly wouldn’t have spread to the cladding.”
Comparisons to other fires corroborate claims that sprinklers save lives. Research has shown that no one has ever died in a UK fire in a property with a correctly installed sprinkler system. Major fires in high-rises in other countries, such as the blazes in Dubai in 2015 and 2017, have resulted in no deaths. The common factor in these cases is the presence of sprinkler systems.
Dany Cotton, Commissioner of the London Fire Brigade, has become a prominent voice in the debate following Grenfell. She responded to the tragedy by demanding the retrofitting of sprinkler systems in all high-rise buildings. She declared that this must be a “turning point” in the approach to fire safety in council flats, and that, without such measures, a disaster of this nature could happen again. “This can’t be optional, it can’t be a nice to have, this is something that must happen.”
Echoes of this have been heard numerous times since Grenfell from experts and architects. One fire safety expert, Mr Atkins, has stated that with sprinklers installed there is a 99% chance of surviving a fire. He went on to comment that “to date no-one has ever died in a fire with a sprinkler system in the household.”
In light of these assertions, the figures revealed on the eve of the Grenfell Public Enquiry, concerning the safety measures currently present in council houses across the UK, are even more alarming. Presently, less than 2% of housing blocks are equipped with sprinkler systems. This equates to merely 1 in 50 housing blocks being appropriately armed to fight fire. Moreover, of these buildings, 68% have only 1 staircase.
There has been some initial progress in retrofitting sprinklers since Grenfell. Croydon and Wandsworth Councils have been some of the most decisive in moving towards increasing resident safety; with plans to install sprinklers in all tower blocks of 10 storeys or above. Nevertheless, there is still a long way to go until we can be sure all citizens are safe from the avoidable and tragic fate of those at Grenfell.
This tragedy has illuminated the extent of the failures of current fire-safety measures and just how limited the procedures are in ensuring people are adequately protected. Grenfell has been a grave warning that people are living in danger. It demands a new approach for the future, and fast; with a thorough examination and re-assessment of building safety controls. Part of this response must be the immediate installation of sprinkler systems into public buildings, both new and existing.