Socialist Worker

‘As an ex-firefighter, I know the deaths at Grenfell were avoidable. Those responsible must answer for it’

Issue No. 2559

Firefighters tackled a blaze that should have been contained by the buildings fire protections

Firefighters tackled a blaze that should have been contained by the building's fire protections (Pic: Guy Smallman)


I was a firefighter for 30 years and I have never seen anything like what happened at Grenfell. I was at the King’s Cross Underground fire in 1987, several bombings, the Clapham rail crash in 1988.

These are the sort of terrible events you remember. But none of them were like this.

You can see what happened by the scale of the fire service call out. When you’re in charge at a big fire, as I was on several occasions, you call in the response you need.

So you start with three or four pumps (engines). If it’s bad then you might call for two more. At Grenfell it starts with the basic response, then five minutes later it’s pump six, then a few minutes more pump eight. And then it’s pump 20. That means the person in charge is saying to themselves, “I’ve lost it”.

The first call came just before 1am and by 1.30am it was a 25-pump fire. That is unprecedented.  Eventually 40 pumps were used.

Firefighters have talked about how they heard children screaming and they couldn’t do anything. You are trying to save lives, but it’s impossible. People are jumping. It’s terrible.

I watched the TV coverage of Grenfell and it looked like the pictures you see from a Third World country where they don’t have regulations and safety measures.

There are so many questions. Now we know they used a cheaper form of cladding that was less fire-resistant. That was like wrapping the building in a wick.

Just to save a few quid!

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What else happened in Grenfell to spread the fire. There was an internal hot air heating system. Was that all properly fire stopped? If not the fire will spread like pouring water through pipes.

Were all the doors self-closing? If not you won’t get the fire protection you need.

Were there holes in the walls between one flat and another? If there are, fire will spread quicker.

The strategy in a tower block is simple. The walls and the ceiling in each flat should contain the fire for 60 minutes.

The door is more difficult because obviously it has openings around it, but it should hold the fire for 30 minutes. And then the door on the floor outside should hold the fire for another 30 minutes.

The advice to “stay in your flat if you’re not directly affected” isn’t wrong if the fire is held for an hour or more in the flats affected.  

If you want an example of what should happen, watch this video of the Dorrington Point fire in east London in 2013.

About 200 people were evacuated from a high rise block of flats. Nobody died. One person was taken to hospital, all the other residents left the building without assistance.

It’s an 11-storey building, so it’s not as big as Grenfell, but exactly the same principles apply. The fire is contained.

The scale of the loss of life at Grenfell was completely avoidable. Those responsible must answer for it


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