Three years after the Grenfell Tower fire, a third of fire and rescue services still would not send sufficient resources to high-rise fires, new data from the Fire Brigades Union (FBU) can reveal.
Residents still face a “postcode lottery” of fire and rescue response, the union has warned, with huge variation between brigades’ pre-determined attendance (PDA) levels, the number of fire engines initially sent to a high rise fire.
PDAs range from up to 10 fire engines and a high-reaching aerial appliance in London down to as few as two fire engines and an aerial appliance in North Wales.
The FBU has called out the “scandal” that national minimum standards have still not been set for fire and rescue response to such fires. UK fire services were subject to national standards for most of the post-war era, but they were scrapped in 2004.
25 of the UK’s fire and rescue services have increased their high-rise PDA since July 2017, immediately after Grenfell, while 19 have either seen no change and the PDAs in two services have worsened.
Since Grenfell, there have been at least eight significant fires aided by serious building safety failings in London, Bolton, Crewe, and Belfast.
On average, more resources are mobilised to high-rise fires in London and the South East of England, whilst fewer resources are mobilised in the West Midlands, the North East and North West of England, Wales and Northern Ireland.
In July 2017, after the Grenfell Tower fire, the FBU wrote to Prime Minister Theresa May warning her of the huge variation in fire and rescue services’ preparedness for a Grenfell-style incident.
The letter warned that all services needed to send a minimum of five water-pumping fire engines and an aerial ladder platform to a fire in a high rise building, the standard brought in by London Fire Brigade after Grenfell.
But three years on, a third of fire and rescue services still would not mobilise five fire engines and an aerial appliance to a high-rise fire, some of which would only do so under certain circumstances, such as to a building with flammable cladding.
84% of brigades plan to mobilise an aerial appliance to all high-rise fires. That number rises to 98% when factoring in certain circumstances, such as if a building is known to have flammable cladding.
But many services no longer have a dedicated crew for the aerial ladder platforms, meaning that the high-reaching appliances are not always available. The FBU warned the Prime Minister of this issue in 2017.
Last month, East Sussex Fire and Rescue Service launched a consultation on sweeping cuts that could remove the dedicated crew for their aerial appliance, while a major fire in Surrey this week waited over an hour for an aerial ladder platform to arrive from West Sussex, as no local aerial was available.
Three-quarters of services would send at least one extra officer, a more senior rank, as part of their initial response, while 58% would send additional support vehicles, such as incident command vehicles.
Earlier this year, the fire and rescue service inspectorate warned that there was “unjustifiable variation” in the level of service residents can expect from their fire and rescue service.
Matt Wrack, FBU general secretary, said:
“It’s shocking that, three years on from Grenfell, high-rise residents still face a postcode lottery in fire and rescue responses. Lives in London and the South East are worth no more than the rest of the country, yet different regions have drastically different standards.
“While fire brigades can and should do better, this is ultimately a failure of government policy. Services have had their funding slashed for more than a decade and there are still no nationally-mandated minimum standards for high-rise fire response. It’s an utter scandal.
“Firefighters have repeatedly warned government that many brigades would not be able to mobilise anywhere near the scale required to tackle the blaze at Grenfell, but they have not listened.
“This data is a chilling warning to the Prime Minister. His predecessor did nothing to tackle this crisis.
“The loss of 72 lives three years ago was deeply traumatic. But there is a good chance that the next Grenfell will be outside of London, in an area where fewer resources are mobilised to a fire – and the loss of life could be worse still.”