Dear Brother / Sister
GRENFELL TOWER INQUIRY - PHASE 1 REPORT PUBLISHED
Today the Grenfell Tower Inquiry (GTI) has published its phase 1 report into the events of 14 June 2017, the worst fire in living memory in the UK.
FBU officials and staff are carefully reading the report, which is nearly 1,000 pages long and the union will make a more detailed response to its recommendations in due course. However, from the outset there are some points which need to be stated clearly and unequivocally: firefighters did not wrap Grenfell Tower in flammable cladding. The real culprits of the fire are the private companies and public authorities who allowed flammable material on the building.
The Fire Brigades Union stands fully behind our members who fought that fire, rescued scores of people and handled the desperate emergency calls on that terrible night. They performed an incredible task in impossible circumstances and all FBU members stand in solidarity and respect at the task they performed. We will not let firefighters and control room staff be scapegoats for political failure.
The GTI Phase 1 Report
The GTI phase 1 report consists of four volumes, 34 chapters and several appendices:
- Volume 1 deals with the building, regulations and the London Fire Brigade (LFB)
- Volume 2 discusses the events of the night from 00:54 to 02:20
- Volume 3 also deals with the events of the night from 02:20 to 08:10, when the last survivor was rescued
- Volume 4 contains a long series of conclusions and 45 recommendations
The FBU’s initial assessment is that the report is very unbalanced. As we have warned from the start, it is back to front because it tries to deal with the events on the night before it has considered what led up to the fire. The narrative of what happened shows the incredible lengths firefighters and control staff went to on the night to save lives. Many of the recommendations are worthy of consideration – although far too much is loaded on the LFB, when many failures are national matters that need to be addressed by central government.
Unfair Criticism of Firefighters and Control Staff
Volume 4, particularly chapter 28 on the incident ground and chapter 29 on the control room are among the most alarming sections of the report. The chair of the inquiry has seen fit to criticise firefighters for supposed failures on the night of the fire, which FBU members individually and collectively will find deeply wounding.
In particular the chair unfairly criticises:
- Incident commanders for the first two hours of the fire
- Firefighters handling of FSGs on the fire ground
- Control room operators taking calls from people trapped, relatives and others
- Individual efforts to rescue and evacuate residents
The chair, who is a retired judge, also makes unrealistic claims about how to conduct fire ground operations, despite not taking any evidence from Steve McGuirk, the former chief officer appointed by the GTI for the specific purpose of advising on firefighting matters. The report is very thin on evidence to back up these claims, but very cutting in its criticism of individual operational firefighters and control staff, who did their best in what was an impossible, unprecedented situation. FBU members will be rightly angered at this section of the report.
The central claim in the report is that firefighters should have evacuated the residents earlier and that, had they done so, more lives could have been saved. The report claims that between 01:30 and 01:50, there was a window of opportunity to abandon the stay put policy and evacuate the residents to safety.
The report ignores or glides over many matters of context. The building had already failed before the fire ever took hold. The cladding, the windows, the fire doors, the lifts, the ventilation system, the single narrow staircase – all had failed from a fire safety point of view, fatally undermining compartmentation.
There was no plan to evacuate Grenfell Tower. Nobody – ministers, the NFCC, LFB, the persons responsible for the building (the tenant management organisation, TMO), the council - none had a practical, worked out plan to get all residents out of the building. The report offers no explanation for how this could have been done on the night.
At 01:30 there were just 30 firefighters on the fire ground. At that point, they had no aerial ladder, no FRUs, no CUs and no additional officers. Grenfell Tower had no central communications system nor a lift override. There was already substantial smoke logging on many floors – discouraging people from evacuating themselves. This is clear from the witness statements of residents who were inside the building, from phone calls they made to control and from firefighters also inside.
The report in hindsight expected not an evacuation but a mass rescue of nearly 200 people, organised by firefighters going floor by floor, flat by flat, with no EDBA, while the building was enveloped in flames. There was no policy for evacuating Grenfell Tower that night. There is simply no evidence of what would have happened if a mass evacuation/rescue had been attempted. The chair has not received sufficient advice from the Inquiry’s fire safety expert. To assert that on that night, at that moment, such a rescue effort by 30 firefighters was possible, is a claim without substance.
The chair has called for a national review of ‘stay put’, a demand the FBU made more than a year ago to the GTI. Indeed the inquiry chair could have made such a call months ago as an interim recommendation as the FBU requested. He chose not to do so. Such a review must not be left to the NFCC and others who are complicit in the systematic fire safety regime failures.
Criticism of LFB Principal Management
The report contains some stinging criticism of LFB principal management, including points made by FBU officials in London before and since the fire. In particular, it did not learn the lessons of the Lakanal House fire. Instead, the then Commissioner of the LFB and his team made no objections when Boris Johnson, as Mayor of London closed 10 fire stations and scrapped fire appliances at the cost of some 600 firefighter jobs.
The report highlights failings and weaknesses in LFB policies on high rise firefighting, in FSG calls as well as a failure to plan or train for external cladding fires.
These are all matters the LFB should hold its hand up to. However the LFB is not alone – many failures apply to other fire and rescue services across the UK and the political masters who are meant to oversee them. We have said from the start that many of these issues are national matters rather than simply matters for London.
The report’s recommendations for LFB should be nationwide and need to be looked at through UK wide lens, or we risk another fire like Grenfell happening in a different part of the country. Fragmentation of the fire service has resulted in a postcode lottery of guidance, training and procedures. What is needed is central government leadership to ensure ALL fire and rescue services are equipped and ready to deal with fires in high rise residential buildings. That means an overall stakeholder consultation body - which must include the FBU – to oversee regime change throughout the fire and rescue service.
The report makes no reference to the additional resources needed to implement the recommendations, which are vast. Governments must now prioritise this as a matter of urgency and properly fund our fire and rescue services.
Buried within the report is some recognition of the work firefighters carried out on the night:
“There can be no doubt that the rank and file firefighters who attended the fire displayed enormous courage and selfless devotion to duty. In many cases they pushed themselves to, and even beyond, the limits of endurance in their attempt to fight the fire and to rescue those who remained in the building.”
However the report then quibbles and carps about individual decisions, mistakes and oversights instead of thoroughly examine the circumstances firefighters faced so swiftly after they arrived.
The FBU will stand up and defend our members from unfair criticism. We will fight for justice in solidarity alongside the bereaved, survivors and residents of Grenfell Tower. We expect the GTI to listen to the voices of firefighters and the communities we serve.
Yours in unity