Socialist Worker

Fire safety professional speaks out - Greed failed people at Grenfell, not firefighters

A fire safety professional spoke to Socialist Worker about how the refurbishment of Grenfell Tower put people at risk—and the experiences of firefighters who fought the blaze

Issue No. 2608

Firefighters join a protest to demand justice for Grenfell in November last year

Firefighters join a protest to demand justice for Grenfell in November last year (Pic: Guy Smallman)


Everyone’s talking about the “stay put” policy now. Firefighters face criticism for telling people to stay in Grenfell Tower during the fire. But they wouldn’t have had any choice

On the night of the fire they were travelling there in their engines, looking at the huge plume of smoke. They were thinking, “How are we going to put this out?” They weren’t thinking about changing the evacuation policy.

They would have no idea that the fire was coming from the outside in.

Control operators are trained to say to people, “We know there’s a fire in your building. Stay where you are because the building’s designed to protect you.”

Before this fire you would not have found a single fire safety professional who would say that policy needed changing.

The policy of the London Fire Brigade has worked in thousands of other incidents.

Imagine a row of 20 houses. Now imagine a fire breaks out in house 20. It wouldn’t reach house number one. Then take that row and turn it 90 degrees so it’s vertical.

The same principle applies in a tower block—all a high rise tower is effectively is a row of terraced houses going up into the sky.

But Grenfell broke all the rules of a fire that we work to. The refurbishment of the tower changed the whole design of the building.

Even the new windows ignited—they were put in a different position which allowed the fire to travel up the outside of the building.

The original windows were inset. They were moved out so that they were flush with the cladding. That created a straightforward route for the fire to continue upwards.

To blame the fire brigade or firefighters for Grenfell is ridiculous. I know they would have tried their hearts out to save as many people as they could.

Traumatic

The control officers are the most honourable people you could ever meet—they go through traumatic incidents all the time. They’re the people who speak to people who are dying in fires.

There’s no way they could have known they should have changed the evacuation policy.

They didn’t understand that Grenfell Tower had been redesigned by greedy bastards who put flammable material on the outside of the building.

With that material on the building it should have been a full evacuation strategy, there’s no doubt about that.

That redesign is the part that failed. They might as well have wrapped it around a wick, said that’s a candle, and lit it up. It was waiting to happen.

I knew people would start to play the blame game, but I didn’t know it was going to be as blatant as it has been. That’s the upsetting part.

I know some of the guys who were there.

One firefighter, someone jumped out of one of the windows from one of the upper floors and landed on his back. Now he’s on a breathing apparatus.

When people start pointing fingers they want to think about what they’re doing, because people who went on that job will be affected for the rest of their lives.

They won’t ever be the same again. They went in there to help other people. There wasn’t anyone else running towards the building.


‘The culture was to get rid of the problems—migrants and the poor’

Racism was at the heart of the culture that led to the Grenfell Tower fire.

The people who died came disproportionately from ethnic minorities, who were also disproportionately represented in the tower.

Sakineh Afrasiabi died in the fire. She was 65 and had severe physical impairments, yet she was rehoused on the 18th floor of Grenfell Tower.

Her son Shahrokh Aghlani said, “There was no culture of talking about public safety. The culture instead was to get rid of what they saw as a problem—the migrants, those on low incomes and ethnic minorities.

“It was a form of ghettoisation of minorities in what is an affluent London borough.”

Racism has conditioned the way survivors and the bereaved have been treated after the fire too.

“Getting support from the council has involved a lot of begging and needless waste of energy,” said Shahrokh. “The help that we should have had to put back the shattered pieces of our lives has been absent.

“It has felt—and I know this is the experience of other bereaved family members—that we are being accused of lying and trying to get money from the system. It is insulting to be treated like that.”

Intimidated

Lawyer Imran Khan told the Grenfell inquiry how Sakineh had been intimidated by Kensington and Chelsea council, and subjected to raids by housing officers.

He argued that the inquiry should address a further question —“whether race, religion or social class played any part in the events surrounding the fire”.

Khan said the 2011 census data shows that 71 percent of the residents in Kensington and Chelsea are white.

The borough has a disproportionate amount of high earners and contains the highest number of bankers in Britain.

Khan said black and minority ethnic (BAME) households are systematically discriminated against in housing. Homelessness is increasing among people from ethnic minorities, and they are more likely to live in overcrowded accommodation.

Khan pointed out that “around a quarter of BAME households live in the oldest pre-1919 built homes. One in six ethnic minority families have a home with a category 1 hazard under the housing health and safety rating system, and their homes less often include safety features such as fire alarms.”

Alistair Farrow


Hundreds of other tower blocks are still death traps one year on from Grenfell

Hundreds of tower blocks are still covered in dangerous cladding one year on from the Grenfell Tower fire.

The latest government figures last month showed that 297 residential buildings had cladding systems that were “unlikely to meet current Building Regulations guidance”. These buildings “present fire hazards”.

Some 159 of the 297 were social housing blocks.

A further 14 public buildings, including hospitals and schools, were also deemed unsafe.

Just ten of the 159 social housing blocks have completed safety work. Nearly a third have seen no safety work begin.

And the government doesn’t know what the figures are for private blocks.

Theresa May set aside just £400 million to fund the removal of cladding. This is not new money—it is from the existing social housing budget.

That means even less money for new, safe, council housing and yet more people forced onto the private rental market.

The demand for decent housing must be at the centre of the campaign for justice.


How many without a home?

The headline figures show that 198 out of 203 households from Grenfell Tower have accepted offers of temporary or permanent housing.

These figures hide the reality. Some of the homes are not yet available for people to move into.

Tory housing minister James Brokenshire confirmed on Monday of this week that just 134 of the 198 households have moved into new homes.

He said, “I remain very concerned about the 43 households who are living in hotels.”

One survivor still living in temporary accommodation told Socialist Worker, “It’s better than a hotel, but it’s still not a home.

“I can’t feel like I have roots or express who I am.”


Protest to demand Justice4Grenfell

  • Silent Walk - Thursday 14 June at 5.30pm, Maxilla Hall Social Club, W10 6NQ
  • Solidarity March - Saturday 16 June at 12 noon, Downing Street, SW1A 2

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