Ministers complacent over high-rise fire risk, say firefighters

Fire Brigades Union questions government’s claims that resources are sufficient

Firefighters have accused ministers of “utter complacency” about the risk of high-rise fires after it emerged that most fire brigades still plan to send only a handful of pumps to tackle such blazes, despite 40 being used at Grenfell Tower.

The Fire Brigades Union said that nearly two years after the disaster that killed 72 people, ministers’ claims that firefighters had sufficient resources to keep people safe were “misleading” and its research showed a “postcode lottery of preparedness” across England and Wales.

An FBU survey shared with the Guardian found fire brigades in Durham and North Yorkshire had a predetermined resource allocation of just two pumps for a high-rise fire, while most others said they would deploy four. The highest number was seven.

The plans are typically based on fires staying within individual flats and do not account for spread, as happened in minutes at Grenfell. Tests on hundreds of high-rise buildings in the wake of the Grenfell fire on 14 June 2017 revealed that the risk of compartmentation being breached was far higher than previously thought.

The research also found that the Home Office, which oversees the fire service, had checked on the readiness of just three of 47 brigades outside London to cope with a similar inferno to Grenfell. A further 11 were checked by the National Fire Chiefs Council.

Matt Wrack, the leader of the FBU, accused Nick Hurd, the fire service minister, of failing to “grasp the severity or even the basic details of the risk across the country”.

He said: “It’s no longer possible to claim that a fire like Grenfell is unforeseeable. Firefighters were placed in an impossible situation that night. But two years on, the government still has not provided the planning and resources necessary to prepare firefighters for what are now completely foreseeable risks.”

He said the resources planned to be deployed in high-rise fires were “mostly utterly inadequate. The difference in predetermined attendances is also deeply worrying – there is no reason why which part of the country a building is located in should determine the safety of its residents.”

The London fire brigade admitted to the Grenfell Tower inquiry last year that it was “overwhelmed” that night, but the commissioner, Dany Cotton, said there had been no point in organising training for such a fire, which she compared in likelihood to “the space shuttle landing on the Shard”.

London fire chiefs are widely expected to be strongly criticised by the Grenfell Tower inquiry when it releases its delayed report on the night of the fire in October.

Spending cuts have led to ongoing reductions in resources for fire brigades post Grenfell, the FBU’s analysis shows. The government provided more than £1bn for fire and rescue services in England in 2016-17, and that is being cut by 15% in 2019-20.

In June last year Hurd assured the Labour MP Kate Hoey in a letter that fire brigades were “sufficiently resourced to respond to a high-rise fire similar to Grenfell”. However, three months later, after he asked his officials to check with fire brigades about their preparedness, the minister told the FBU that brigades had “at least a limited high-rise firefighting capability and would respond to a fire in a high-rise compartment, but response alone is not sufficient to deal with a Grenfell-type incident”.

The FBU research found that many fire brigades remained unprepared to handle 999 calls from people inside burning buildings, despite call handlers being overwhelmed by the volume of calls during the Grenfell Tower fire.

When asked if they had operational policies for dealing with multiple fire survival guidance calls, 19 fire brigades said they did not, or did not answer. These included units in Northern Ireland, Humberside, North and West Yorkshire, Lancashire, Bedfordshire, Cambridgeshire, Oxfordshire and Avon.

The FBU said: “The data collected by the FBU reveals that resources outside of London are so stretched that fire and rescue services would not be able to mobilise anywhere near [the required] scale. The government has done nothing in the two years since Grenfell to address the concerns of residents and have failed to launch a national review of the ‘stay put’ policy, as previously demanded by the FBU.”

Chris Lowther, chairman of the National Fire Chiefs Council’s co-ordination committee stressed that brigades can share resources to tackle large fires. He said: “The NFCC and fire and rescue services have considered the impact of the Grenfell Tower tragedy, and will continue to adopt any recommendations moving forward.”

A government spokesperson said: “Fire and rescue services have the resources they need and we are encouraged that the number of fire safety audits carried out on purpose-built flats of four or more storeys more than doubled, to nearly 6,600 in 2017-18, compared with the previous year.

“We have banned combustible cladding and are fully funding its replacement on high-rise residential buildings in the private and social housing sectors. We have also accepted all the recommendations of the independent Hackitt review and are working to implement a major overhaul of building and fire safety regulations.”


Robert Booth Social affairs correspondent

The GuardianTramp

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