The London fire brigade (LFB) is one of the worst in the country, according to inspectors who found that two and a half years after the Grenfell Tower disaster, incident commanders remain inadequately trained, the service is wasting resources and it is failing to learn from its mistakes.
In a scathing report, Her Majesty’s Inspector of Constabulary and Fire and Rescue Services said the UK’s biggest fire brigade was “inadequate at getting the right people with the right skills” and had been sending commanders to fight blazes who had not been trained for five years, while some engine drivers had not been trained for 20 years.
The findings were “very concerning”, said a spokesperson for the mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, who this month was involved in forcing out Dany Cotton, the commissioner of the LFB who oversaw firefighting at Grenfell and the aftermath. “It is clear significant changes are needed,” Khan’s spokesperson said.
In similar inspections, 36 of England’s 45 fire and rescue services performed better than the LFB. Other poorly performing services were Gloucestershire, Northumberland and West Sussex. The best included West Yorkshire, South Yorkshire, Lancashire and Staffordshire.
The inspectorate said it could not understand why the LFB was the only brigade in the country not to follow national operational guidance. It was “disappointed” in the slowness with which the LFB was responding to shortcomings, and it said there was a “worrying” culture that discouraged incident commanders from using their discretion in firefighting operations – something that happened only six times in two years across around 200,000 incidents.
Detailed inspections were carried out between May and July, two years after the Grenfell fire claimed 72 lives.
Matt Parr, HM Inspector of Fire and Rescue Services, said: “There are too many areas where the London Fire Brigade needs to make improvements. It should improve the way it protects the public both through fire regulation and how it responds to fires and other emergencies.
“It is well resourced and exceeds its own standards on response times. But its operational policies don’t reflect national operational guidance, even for risk-critical areas such as incident command. And its incident commanders and emergency drivers are not as well trained by the brigade as they should be. This is something that needs to be urgently addressed.”
Last week Khan announced Andy Roe would replace Cotton as LFB commissioner.
Sir Martin Moore-Bick, the chair of the public inquiry into Grenfell, found that on the night of the fire the LFB’s slowness in changing the advice to residents from stay put to evacuate cost lives, and he said the LFB’s readiness was “gravely inadequate”.
Michael Dowden, the first incident commander at Grenfell, has described how he was overwhelmed and felt unprepared for the scale of the fire. The inspection found that the LFB sometimes only trained officers of his rank in how to command incidents a year after they had begun doing so.
Furthermore, staff cannot fail refresher courses, which means that however poorly they perform on one they still return to commanding incidents. The inspectors said outsourced training provided by Babcock, a private company, was expensive and inflexible. The “perceived intransigence” of the Fire Brigades Union had also been blamed for training programmes stalling.
Cotton stunned the bereaved and survivors from Grenfell when she told the inquiry that she would not have done anything differently and that training incident commanders to handle a cladding fire like the one with tore through Grenfell was akin to planning for “a space shuttle landing on the Shard”.
However, Parr made clear that far-reaching questions about the LFB “go wider than just one person”.
“We found that while the brigade has learned lessons from Grenfell, it has been slow to implement the changes needed,” he said. “This is unfortunately typical of the brigade’s approach to organisational change.”
Roe, who begins as commissioner in January, said: “I recognise that what’s been highlighted in the report isn’t good enough. We have introduced new courses, additional exercises, annual assessments for our incident commanders and refresher training for all of our control staff and drivers. We are also planning a new high-tech training centre in Croydon, which will include a new real fire training venue.”