Socialist Worker

Blame housing bosses not ­firefighters for Grenfell blaze

As the Grenfell inquiry continues, the fire service is once again facing scrutiny. Isabel Ringrose says that anger must be directed to those at the top

Issue No. 2774

Firefighters at a Grenfell protest

Firefighters at the four year anniversary Grenfell silent walk (Pic: Guy Smallman)


The Grenfell Tower Inquiry into the west London fire in June 2017 is now investigating whether firefighting led to the deaths of 72 people.

Lawyers for some groups of survivors and the bereaved have pointed fingers at the London Fire Brigade’s (LFB) actions in the years before and on the night of the fire.

Issues include adequate training, whether knowledge about cladding was made common, and whether water equipment was correctly used to extinguish the fire.

Danny Friedman QC said the blaze saw the LFB face “the limits of its competence”.

He argued that neither “gross negligence of the contractors” nor “the economics of successive governments” were “full excuses” for events on the night.

Evacuation

Firefighters have come under repeated pressure for using the “stay put” policy. This was the official evacuation strategy for a block of flats to keep people inside if the fire was not affecting them.

It has also been revealed that senior officers were aware of the risks associated with cladding fires.

Phase One of the inquiry concluded that incident commanders’ training did not prepare them for the rapid spread of the fire.

Battered and betrayed but still fighting back - Grenfell activists speak out
Battered and betrayed but still fighting back - Grenfell activists speak out
  Read More

This is despite seven recommendations being made after the Lakanal House fire in 2009 to deal with sizeable high rise fires.

We learnt last week that LFB training on this had only been partially completed by August 2017, despite a deadline for April 2013.

LFB is structured with bosses and bureaucrats at the top, and firefighters should not be scapegoats for their errors.

And it’s wrong to say that, because the brigade made mistakes, responsibility for the disaster should lay with it.

Not only did the LFB not cause the fire, but mistakes were made due to cuts and being unaware of how unsafe the tower was.

Blaming the firefighters takes the focus off those who really have blood on their hands—cladding and insulation manufacturers, building regulators, the council and the government.

And all parties agree that Boris Johnson, as Mayor of London at the time, has questions to answer at the inquiry for his “cruel agenda” of cuts to the LFB.

Fire Brigades Union lawyer Martin Seaward QC argued last week that although “stay put” is being revised, there are “still no national guidelines on evacuation” from the government.

So the LFB didn’t sit back despite dangerous high rises. It had no control over national fire safety or building regulations or the health and safety failings within Grenfell.

In fact the inquiry uncovered letters between the LFB and the government after the Lakanal fire.

Sent to Sir Ken Knight, still the chief fire and rescue advisor to the government, the letter warned about combustible materials in external walls after a series of testing.

Insufficent

The LFB suggested checks on the specification of panels on external walls to ensure they were compliant with regulations.

But the department did not act due to “insufficient” information.

Instead, a generic letter was sent to social landlords advising them to have cladding works checked.

And the inquiry has already exposed that the LFB issued warnings about combustible materials to local councils.

A deficiency notice was granted in March 2014 with a deadline to fix Grenfell’s smoke ventilation system. Another notice was given—and ignored—in 2015 to fix self-closers on doors, which proved deadly on the night of the fire.

Internal failings or mismanagement within the LFB isn’t where most of the blame lies.

The disaster is down to a council that disregarded fire safety and its residents’ warnings, and the firms that profited from the sale of deadly materials.


Click here to subscribe to our daily morning email newsletter 'Breakfast in red'


Mobile users! Don't forget to add Socialist Worker to your home screen.