Grenfell: Drip-drip of revelations exposes UK complacency following decades of fire-safety progress

Photo: Brandon Butterworth under CC4.0 Until this year, fire deaths in England and Wales had been falling steadily for three decades. Between 2004 and 2014 fire deaths fell by 40%. Both in its sophistication and implementation, the fire-safety discipline has improved beyond measure since the 1980s.

Rules are now in place that you hardly need a degree in fire engineering to recognise as basic common sense. Their absence 30 years ago betrays a now shocking disregard for fire risk. Just consider that smoking was permitted in train carriages until 1984 and on London underground platforms until 1987, with a trial ban made permanent following the Kings Cross fire that killed 31 people and injured 100. And the circumstances surrounding the fire that killed 56 football supporters at Bradford City s Valley Parade stadium on 11 May 1985 are unbelievable. The stand that caught fire was made of timber and this at a time when supporters were allowed to smoke freely on the terraces. More incomprehensibly still, litter had been allowed to pile up beneath the stand a ready-made bonfire just awaiting ignition. A copy of the Bradford Telegraph and Argus was found, dated 4 November 1968. Such tragedies prompted the authorities to take health and safety and fire safety rather more seriously and fire deaths have been falling ever since. Small wonder that a government committed to slashing the deficit saw the fire service as an obvious target for cuts.

The firefighter s role was also expanded to encompass traffic accidents, terror attacks and major floods. We might have been full of post-Empire, pre-Brexit anxieties about our economic status and cultural identity, but we were good at fire safety and health and safety. While hundreds of workers have died in the construction of facilities for the Qatar World Cup, not a single fatality was recorded in the building of London 2012 venues. When a series of fires broke out in tall buildings dotting the skyline in Dubai in 2015 and 2016, many in the UK might have sneered at the emirate s complacency over fire standards. And yet, despite their frequency, not a single person died in those blazes. By horrific contrast, the death toll from the Grenfell blaze, though still not finalised, will surely represent the worst loss of life in a single fire in living memory. We are as a nation much more humble about our fire safety record since 14 June 2017. If the UK government forgot about the Lakanal disaster all too readily, it will be harder to expunge this one from the collective memory. The harrowing stories of people throwing children out of windows on upper level floors are not easily forgotten.

And the charred remains of Grenfell fire, visible from miles around, stand as a lasting monument to the complacency, incompetence and disregard of so many involved in the protection and management of social housing. But if others had been surprised that such a thing could happen, those in the industry were less so. Many voices in the fire industry had been warning, with increasing exasperation, for years about the multiple deficiencies in the fire-safety situation with high-rise residential blocks. More than a month on from the worst fire disaster in living memory, the shortcomings and instances of neglect continue to mount, dispelling any lingering complacency after decades of falling numbers of fire deaths. Timber frame fears The Grenfell fire has brought into sharp focus the materials favoured by the modern construction industry. As the scale of the cladding problem continues to worsen, fire-engineering experts are now warning that timber frames, which are the most popular building method for social housing, are also problematic. Speaking to the Guardian, Arnold Tarling, a chartered surveyor, said: I worry it will take more losses of life before people take this seriously, because nobody ever learns. With buildings like this, everything has to be perfect with the build to make them safe, and then afterwards, he said. At the moment we ve got a lot of modern materials, and a lot of materials being put together, and the regulations just haven t kept up.

The structural issues that once necessitated a 7-8 storey limit on the height of timber-frame buildings are no longer an issue thanks to innovations in construction methods. One timber-frame building planned for construction in east London will have nine floors, while a proposal for a 300-metre-high wood-framed skyscraper. The US, where timber frames are widespread, specifies height and area restrictions and mandates the installation of sprinklers systems neither of which apply in the UK. Timber frames can be perfectly safe. The problem arises when corners are cut, resulting in gaps in the timber frame, which is encased into a sealed void between external bricks and internal plasterboard walls. Jim Glockling, technical director of the Fire Protection Association, told the Guardian: We shouldn t be scaremongering. A properly put-together timber-frame building should perform well but it s about having the methods and quality assurance in place. There s a difference between what you are allowed to do through building regulations and what you should do. Residents themselves can undermine the effectiveness of compartmentalisation by drilling holes in a wall to mount shelves or a TV.

The problems of timber frames extends beyond the theoretical. One blaze caused by a discarded cigarette at flats in Hounslow, west London, destroyed 16 homes and caused the collapse of the building roof. And a Manchester block of flats was demolished six days after a fire broke out so fire crews could be certain it was fully extinguished. Electricity surges It has also emerged that 25 Grenfell Tower residents had experienced electricity power that caused appliances to malfunction, overheat and even emit smoke. Based on documents it had obtained, the BBC reported that some of the problems, reported several years before, had still not been resolved in the months leading up to the fire. The Grenfell fire is believed to have started when a fridge freezer caught fire on the fourth floor. More cladding revelations Given the rapid spread of the fire up the building s exterior, it was immediately apparent that the cladding on Grenfell Tower was woefully inadequate from a fire protection perspective. Worse still, in the days and weeks that followed, government tests revealed that cladding from a huge proportion of high rise residential buildings was similarly deficient. The latest damaging revelation comes from University of Leeds.

A team of researchers has found that burning cladding on Grenfell Tower would have released 14 times more heat than government tests allow. Although contractors who fitted the cladding insist that it passed all regulations, the researchers concluded that the cladding s plastic core would have burned as quickly as petrol . According to data released by French authorities, e cladding would have released 43.2 MJ/kg of heat. The European A2 standard for limited combustibility is 3 MJ/kg. The foam insulation underneath the cladding was, separately, thought to emit around 26 MJ/kg of heat.

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