How to design a death trap

The Grenfell inquiry is still going on and the last testimony from Dr Barbara Lane is not just an eye opener, it shows two elemental parts. The first is that the ‘stay put’ scenario could never have worked, the second one is that the cladding itself had the additional issue of getting set against combustible materials. That does not make the person who decided on the cladding innocent, it merely proves that the people behind it all failed in spectacular ways. The first part given is “Styrofoam core panels were installed between the new windows and around kitchen vents; ethylene propylene diene terpolymer was used around the new window frames; and polyurethane expanding foam was used to fill joints in the insulation and in gaps between new windows and walls – all combustible materials. She also found combustible polymeric foam above some windows, even though there was no evidence of it being specified, and polyisocyanurate foam that was not in the design” This states that not only was there more combustible materials, there was additional combustible materials that were not even part of the design. So someone acted, someone approved those additional costs. Then we get the first killer. With “horizontal cavity barriers designed to stop fire spreading through the facade had wrongly been installed vertically. They feature an intumescent strip that is meant to expand and close the gap during a fire, but some of these barriers were installed facing into the existing concrete, rendering them useless. She said some of the required cavity barriers had simply not been installed around windows“, we see not merely a construction error, a direct flaw on parts that would stop fires, or at least largely decrease the speed was done wrong and now we see that the building had ‘vent columns‘ to allow the fire to reach maximum speed. At this point, we have issues with procurement, with the installation and construction inspection. Optionally, the architectural setting was wrong, which gives us a failing on nearly every level from the council to the person telling the man with the drill what to do and where to do it. I think that this is a first for me, to see failing to this degree. The stay put was basically a death sentence in 30 minutes. It is the additional “more than 100 fire doors inside Grenfell did not meet fire regulations” that gives the light that the corridors would have been as deadly as the apartment to stay put in, in close to 30 minutes. She gives a few more points, but at this stage, what she gives out is that the killing blow would have been close to a given when those remained inside beyond the first 15 minutes. The article ends with “The same compartmentalisation strategy was essential for firefighting internally, which relied on a working firefighting lift, protected lobbies, ways of getting water up the buildings, a protected space between the firefighting stair and the flats. All of these failed to one degree or another“, now we see that Grenfell was a death-trap for tenants and firefighters alike, the fact that no firefighter died that day is a small miracle to say the least.

So in all this, when we consider the Telegraph article a day earlier (a clear reason for a second Leveson), we see a different side. The article job is a hatchet job by Hayley Dixon, a person who should not be allowed in journalism (a personal belief on mine due to this one article). So when we get back to the title ‘Grenfell survivors question why it took 15 minutes for firefighters to tackle initial blaze‘, and as Hayley Dixon published this at 21:30 local time the previous day. Was this the result of writers block? Was this a mere emotional writing of 104 words to meet a deadline requirement? If so, how irresponsible is the editor? When we put the Telegraph article next to the Independent, the Guardian and the testimony of Dr Barbara Lane, we are confronted with the emotional push of some kind? You see, the setting we see now, the videos that are online and the pictures clearly show that there was nothing normal about the fire and that Grenfell was a constructed death-trap in the shape of a Roman candle. Additional views (from the Independent) gave us “One survivor reported that building’s dry risers – vertical pipes used by firefighters to distribute water to multiple levels of a building – were not working“, so in all this, how was the Telegraph article not merely a waste of space and existence?

This entire fish gets another flavour when we consider an earlier BBC article (at https://www.bbc.com/news/uk-40330789). In this we see “Four ministers – all from the Department for Communities and Local Government – received letters but did not strengthen the regulations. Ronnie King, a former chief fire officer who sits on the group, says the government has ignored repeated warnings about tower block safety. “We have spent four years saying ‘Listen, we have got the evidence, we’ve provided you with the evidence, there is clear public opinion towards this, you ought to move on this’,” said Mr King.”” we would expect that at least some move would be made and even as the cladding and other issues now showing would not have stopped anything, better regulations might have at least delayed enough for people to reconsider getting out. So who gets to be on the front page? Yes it is Liberal Democrat MP Stephen Williams – who was then a minister in the department – replied: “I have neither seen nor heard anything that would suggest that consideration of these specific potential changes is urgent and I am not willing to disrupt the work of this department by asking that these matters are brought forward“. This can be countered by the BBC (at https://www.bbc.com/news/uk-40422922, where we see “London Fire Brigade warned all 33 councils about the potential risks of external cladding on tower blocks in May this year, the BBC has learned. It followed tests on panels from a high rise that suffered a fire last August. The insulation panels were made up of polystyrene and plywood, and tests concluded they were the likely cause of the fire spreading up the outside“, so there was clear evidence from May 2017 (after his ‘reign’), yet the issues had been clear put forward in 2014 when he was there. He remains in our sights when we realise that this had been going on since 2009, as it was highlighted at the coroner’s inquest into a fire at Lakanal House in Camberwell in 2009, which led to the deaths of six people, including three children. So at that point, the words of Liberal Democrat MP Stephen Williams become a statement of falsehood the moment he spoke them in 2014. When we hear ‘I am not willing to disrupt the work of this department by asking that these matters are brought forward‘, whilst there is a clear coroner’s inquest regarding 6 people, including 3 children, when did ‘disrupt the work of this department‘ become an accepted answer?

I am not sure if we could blame the London Fire Brigade from walking away in the future and let 100% of London burn down, you know, they would not want to ‘disrupt any department‘ by caring, now would they?

The fact is just slightly too dark when we consider that there was ample evidence up to 9 years before the Grenfell blaze. If there is one positive, we might see a change where councils need the office of Dany Cotton, or the office of her previous post where she was the Director of Safety and Assurance at the London Fire Brigade, to sign off on any refurbishment before allowing it to happen. It would optionally stop every council from seeking a ‘short cut’ to adhere to the wishes of rich investors. I am mentioning this, because it will have to be said again and again that the refurbishment and cladding was added “a low-cost way of improving the front of the building – was chosen in part so that the tower would look better when seen from the conservation areas and luxury flats that surround North Kensington, according to planning documents, as well as to insulate it” (source: The Independent). So as luxury flat owners nearby thought Grenfell was too yucky, it ended up being upgraded from apartment building to Roman candle.

I believe that the testimony of Dr Barbara Lane is one of the most damaging to the council, the constructors and decision makers in the refurbishment of Grenfell we have ever seen, the question will turn soon enough into: ‘how many death-traps are there in London?’ It is merely my personal view that there is a level of complacency to set the economic values of London in a way that might be way too dangerous for the people living there. If we see these issues in North Kensington and Chelsea, what would we find if there was an actual serious look at a council like Islington? The fact that Islington is overcrowded, it is growing in the sparkling area for socialites and professionals, so the visibility is high. Even as the London Metropolitan Police is working hard to lower the rising crime number, the impact of a Grenfell like event in Islington will do more than merely burn a building and the people in there. now, let’s also realise that Islington is nowhere near the worst, Also, the high rise situation seems a lot better, yet the overcrowded part seems to give ‘rise’ to other considerations and whilst we all focus on high rises, there are other ways for fires to propagate. Another reason to raise Islington is that so far its housing strategy (2014-2019) looks nice (as all brochures are), we also see that house prices are close to 50% higher than the London average, so the damage is a lot bigger if things do go pear shaped. I also raised it as I know it decently well, yet the brochure on page 29, who gives us all the acts and strategies and legislation gives no voice to the fire dangers. The Housing Act 2004 does give two mentions, ‘Consultation with fire and rescue authorities in certain cases‘ as well as ‘miscellaneous repeals etc. in relation to fire hazards‘, yet there is more. You see even as the brochure might look less sexy by mentioning an issue like: “Depending on the type of property and how it is occupied some or all of the following will apply:

  • the Building Regulations 2010 Part B
  • Housing Health & Safety Rating System
  • The Smoke and Carbon Monoxide Alarm (England) Regulations 2015
  • The Regulatory Reform (Fire Safety) Order 2005

The issue we see with Grenfell is the lack of fire prevention focus, the Housing Strategy for Islington 2014-2019 shows that there is a mere reference to the Housing Act 2004, yet housing strategy is a lot larger towards tenancy and Asset management, and in a place as overcrowded as Islington it could become a problem. Now we understand that Grenfell is only a year old, yet there is additional evidence on several levels that this is an issue that had been going on since 2009, so even as we ‘brand’ Liberal Democrat MP Stephen Williams by his extremely poorly chosen words. He is not alone in not having a much larger fire safety focus. The question becomes if the councils were much stronger on fire prevention, would Grenfell have been prevented? My personal believe is that this would be an absolute certain. The failings that Dr Barbara Lane gave testimony on reflects the failing on nearly every level, so as more levels need to mandatory look at certain hazards, issues would have been brought to light (a personal belief), in this London (not just Kensington and Chelsea) have a much larger workload to content with and these changes would require a reflection on a multitude of levels in the coming year. Even as we accept that voices from Islington stated “Fire safety in Islington. We are the landlord/freeholder for over 35,000 households, and we take our responsibility for your safety very seriously“, we accept that this is a response to Grenfell, yet the housing strategy also shown that there was not enough focus in the past. One additional page in that brochure on certain (read: specific) hazards could have given light that the Islington council had that focus, we now merely see (read: expect) that this is not entirely the case.

London and a lot more metropolitan areas like London mind you will have to adjust their current course on actions and considerations when it comes to fire hazard, because we do not want the London population to wake up looking at the speculative sights shown below from a distance.

Rotterdam 1940

 

OR

Hawaii 2012

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