Fire chief: I would change nothing about Grenfell response

Dany Cotton says fire was as unexpected as ‘a space shuttle landing on the Shard’

The London fire brigade commissioner, Dany Cotton, has said she would not change anything about the way the brigade responded to the Grenfell Tower disaster, in defensive testimony that angered survivors and the bereaved.

Despite weeks of evidence from other firefighters about a lack of breathing apparatus, broken radio communications, a delay in ordering an evacuation and an absence of previous checks on the building, Cotton told the public inquiry into the blaze: “I wouldn’t change anything we did on the night.”

The remark came at the end of six hours of testimony and stunned many in the inquiry room. Natasha Elcock, the chair of the Grenfell United residents group, said it was “heartbreaking and disrespectful” to the dead.

Tiago Alves, who escaped with his family from the 13th floor, said that if Cotton did not think anything needed to change then “if another Grenfell happens tomorrow, the brigade would not be prepared.”

Cotton instead mounted a defence of her firefighters, saying: “Without exception my firefighters and my officers and my control staff performed in a fantastic way given the incredible circumstances they faced. They were put in an untenable situation in a building that behaved in a way it should never have done.”

But Elcock said that while the firefighters had been very brave and saved lives, “mistakes were made with tragic results. It’s disappointing and frustrating that the head of the fire service cannot accept those failings and learn from them.”

Cotton, who has 30 years’ experience in the LFB, arrived at Grenfell at 2.49am on the night of the fire, 14 June 2017, by which time the blaze was out of control. She told the inquiry it looked like a scene from the film The Towering Inferno.

When Richard Millett QC, counsel to the inquiry, pressed her on the LFB’s preparedness for a high-rise cladding fire, Cotton repeatedly said it would have been impossible to prepare because the way the building behaved was so unexpected. “I wouldn’t develop a training package for a space shuttle landing on the Shard,” she told the inquiry.

Millett suggested the fire was not as unusual as that analogy suggested. He asked Cotton whether she knew about several overseas cladding-related fires that had taken place before Grenfell, and she said she did not.

He showed her a slideshow prepared by LFB fire engineers in October 2016, when Cotton was director of safety and assurance. It was titled Tall Building Facades and showed photographs of cladding fires. It warned of “a need to understand what products are being used in the facade system and their fire behaviour … These could affect the way fires develop and spread in a building.”

Cotton said she had not seen the presentation. Since Grenfell she had “looked through it but I’ve not studied it in detail”. She said she did not know why it had not been distributed to watch managers or seen by her.

Millett asked whether that indicated a “structural or cultural failure” whereby insufficient attention was being paid to the science of fire safety at the LFB. She said it did not.

Cotton said she had never in her 30-year LFB career experienced the kind of widespread compartmentation failure in a high-rise residential block that happened at Grenfell or received training in fire spread through facades.

She said she had not read the 2014 government operational guidance for fire and rescue authorities about fighting fires in high-rise buildings. She said she had never experienced a fire where fire survival guidance calls were being made to 999 by people inside burning buildings or being evacuated down a single stairwell.

Cotton conceded that the brigade knew about the risk of cladding fires nine months before the blaze, but said it was the responsibility of building inspectors, designers and builders to ensure buildings performed to allow firefighters to extinguish fires and rescue people.

During the fire Cotton was the monitoring officer, which she said meant she was to provide support, guidance and reassurance to the incident commander. She said she did not take command herself because she was satisfied with the firefighting plan. She could not remember the last time she had received training in operational incident command.

Cotton said she had felt she was not fully doing her job as monitoring officer, particularly when, as the night progressed, she found herself comforting firefighters. “I’ve never seen a situation on the fire ground where firefighters were openly crying and distressed,” she said

Millett asked about “serious failures” in the LFB’s preparedness. Cotton admitted there was a “woefully inadequate” amount of information about Grenfell Tower available on the brigade’s database.

Under a “plans and images” section there was just one aerial picture of the tower’s roof. The “tactical plan” for firefighting on the tower was dated 2009, seven years before a refurbishment had been completed, and had no tactics on it.

“It’s not ideal to have essentially no operational contingency plan on your [system], is it?” Millett asked. “Not at all,” Cotton replied.

In a statement she gave to a police investigation into the fire, Cotton said: “I have had issues with my memory, which I believe is linked to the traumatic nature and sheer scale of the incident. I’m still finding it very difficult to look at visual images and have conversations about Grenfell.

“I’m still responsible for effectively running the London fire brigade, and everything else that’s involved in that. It would be no good for me to fall apart.”


Robert Booth Social affairs correspondent

The GuardianTramp

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