Grenfell inquiry: fire chief admits brigade part of ‘institutional failure’

Andy Roe says organisation failed to join up information and lacked training to deal with ‘shock’ of situation

The London fire brigade was part of “the most appalling example of institutional failure … in recent British history” at Grenfell Tower, the organisation’s current leader has admitted.

Andy Roe, the London fire commissioner since last year, told the public inquiry into the 2017 blaze that killed 72 people that the brigade knew about the key risks that combined to cause the disaster. But he said it had failed to join up the information and officers had not been sufficiently trained to react after the “shock” of such a major building failure.

Under cross-examination by counsel to the inquiry, Richard Millett QC, Roe also revealed how he had witnessed racism from a colleague after a fire involving a family from the Somali community. And he condemned as “unacceptable” a training package from early 2017 that featured a jokey picture of a firefighter rescuing a semi-naked woman.

Commissioner of the London fire brigade, Andy Roe.
Commissioner of the London fire brigade, Andy Roe. Photograph: Martin Godwin/The Guardian

Roe has previously told the Guardian the London fire brigade (LFB) needed to face up to racism and misogyny in its ranks.

His evidence came after his predecessor, Dany Cotton, who was in charge at the time of Grenfell, last week had to qualify her 2018 claim to the inquiry that the fire was as foreseeable as “a space shuttle landing on the Shard”.

She told the inquiry: “We had a lot of organisational knowledge. But I still think that even now the knowledge held by the London and UK fire service would not have anticipated such a catastrophic failure.”

Roe, who revoked the “stay put” policy blamed for costing lives as soon as he took control at Grenfell, was more critical of the service he now leads.

“We were aware of risks that existed in the operational environment,” he said. “If you think of Grenfell specifically, we knew that there was potential risk of wholesale failure of compartmentation.

“We knew the dangers of poor maintenance and management of buildings; the possible involvement of utilities in a fire; the very real possibility of a very large fire in London involving loss of life. But I am not sure we joined those things together in a way that really articulated those risks to officers.”

He said “the scale and the extremity” of the failure was difficult to predict, but he added the fatal 2009 fire at Lakanal House in Southwark had shown the risks of non-compliant facade panels, sudden fire-growth such panels can cause, and smoke-spread from the compartment of origin – all things that happened at Grenfell. The inquiry also heard how, in 2009, the then London fire commissioner, Ron Dobson, was concerned enough to suggest the government warn all housing providers to check that their high-rise cladding met building regulations.

“That night is an example of what happens when people are in shock and have to make decisions,” Roe said. “Many elements of the fire were known to officers who arrived at the fire. It was their ability to join that information up and make decisions with lateral thought.”

Roe, part of a mixed heritage family, firmly denied that elements of racism in the LFB affected the way it handled fires involving people from ethnic minorities. But he described a conversation with a colleague in the fire truck after a fire at a home of a Somali family.

“He said, ‘God, those Pakistanis’ – he used a vernacular term for that that I wouldn’t want to repeat in this setting,” Roe recalled. “He said: ‘They breed like rabbits.’ I said: ‘I hope so mate because I just married one.’ There was a tumbleweed moment.”

Asked about the culture of LFB’s “watches” (the teams that staff stations on rotating shifts) he was also shown a training slideshow from 5 January 2017 about handling calls from people trapped in burning buildings. It featured a Hollywood-style picture of a firefighter rescuing a semi-naked woman with the caption “Blue Watch (Standard Night Shift)”.

He said it was “unacceptable”. “If you are women encountering this training you would not feel comfortable, you would not feel included.”

But he said it wasn’t evidence that fire survival guidance calls were not taken seriously.

The inquiry continues.


Robert Booth Social affairs correspondent

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Fire brigade faces police inquiry over Grenfell 'stay put' order
Detectives investigate whether advice as tower block blazed broke health and safety law

Ian Cobain , Ben Quinn and Robert Booth

07, Jun, 2018 @1:51 PM

Article image
Grenfell survivors say fire brigade chief is not fit for office
Public inquiry hears London fire brigade failed to plan for foreseeable event of a fire

Robert Booth Social affairs correspondent

10, Dec, 2018 @6:01 PM

Article image
Met interviews London fire brigade over Grenfell Tower disaster
LFB questioned under caution as corporate body in relation to health and safety offences

Robert Booth Social affairs correspondent

16, Sep, 2019 @11:36 AM

Article image
Grenfell: survivors lament fire brigade advice to stay inside
Father of five-year-old Isaac Paulos describes being told to ‘stay put’ after blaze started

Owen Bowcott

29, May, 2018 @11:01 PM

Article image
London fire chief during Grenfell blaze to take retirement
Dany Cotton announces she will leave in April after just over three years in the role

Robert Booth Social affairs correspondent

20, Jun, 2019 @10:42 AM

Article image
Grenfell inquiry: Tory housing chief says council ‘lacked humanity’
Inquiry also hears that Quentin Marshall ‘was not sympathetic’ to residents’ complaints about refurbishment works

Robert Booth Social affairs correspondent

19, May, 2021 @2:26 PM

Article image
We let Grenfell Tower residents down, says London fire chief
Andy Roe also accuses owners of tower blocks of endangering lives by ignoring fire risks

Robert Booth Social affairs correspondent

01, Sep, 2020 @4:40 PM

Article image
Grenfell inquiry finds fewer people would have died if fire brigade were better prepared
First phase of report into tragedy that killed 72 people says shortcomings cost lives

Robert Booth Social affairs correspondent

28, Oct, 2019 @10:39 PM

Article image
Fire chief: I would change nothing about Grenfell response
Dany Cotton says fire was as unexpected as ‘a space shuttle landing on the Shard’

Robert Booth Social affairs correspondent

27, Sep, 2018 @1:16 PM

Article image
Grenfell Tower inquiry: the main players
Some of the key people involved in the tragedy and its aftermath

Robert Booth and Owen Bowcott

30, Oct, 2019 @10:00 AM