In the early hours of Wednesday 14 June, one of the worst fire tragedies to ever happen in London, and indeed in the UK, occurred in an otherwise unremarkable tower block, as children slept and families gathered to pray during Ramadan. The Grenfell Tower scandal, and it cannot be called anything else, has rocked the political establishment to its core and the calls of blame and for justice come thick and fast, as the families affected and the public at large demand someone pay for the entirely preventable deaths of so many people. As I write this, the death toll reported is 80, with the number expected to continue rising for months to come.
The Grenfell Tower fire affected me in two ways: as a fire scientist in London South Bank University’s Explosion and Fire Research Group, and as a Londoner. That Wednesday morning, there was a very sudden clamour for information from the media. For 48 hours my phone did not stop ringing, and still I get daily requests from journalists for more interviews, help and information: what could have caused this? How, in 2017, could this happen? And was it likely to happen again? Even three weeks on, these questions are still, mostly unanswered.
I tried my best to answer these questions carefully for the first three days, despite the footage of the incident on Wednesday morning telling me pretty much all I needed to know in respect of an expected fatality rate. Then finally, on the Friday afternoon as the understandable anger, even fury, bubbled over in Kensington, as reports of bravery and sorrow emerged, and as the body count began to rise, it hit me and I sobbed. And I sobbed over an event that was utterly predictable, preventable and should not happen, should not be capable of happening, in our contemporary world with so much understanding of fires, and fire safety.
As a fire scientist, the failure to prevent this tragic incident comes down to three things:
1. The ignition point:
According to the London Metropolitan Police the fire started in a Hotpoint (owned by Whirlpool) fridge freezer model number FF175BP/ FF175BG (manufactured March 2006 and July 2009). Electrical appliance fires are one of the most common causes of domestic fires, and fridge freezers have been linked to serious incidents, including a number of fatalities, and the London Fire Brigade (LFB) has been vocal about the safety of appliances. One report, by LFB in conjunction with the LSBU Explosion and Fire Research Group, highlighted the difference between the number of fatalities resulting from fridge fires in the UK and the USA. The UK has a far higher number of fatalities per fire on average than the USA, where a more fire-retardant metal back is used, compared with the UK’s commonly used fire-retardant plastic backing.
2. Fire engineering integrity:
Building design, maintenance, fire stopping and fire safety assessment will all have to be explored extensively to understand what state the building was in, however it is clear the concept of compartmentalisation was not working. In buildings such as these, fires inside apartments are supposed to be contained, or boxed in, for at least 30 minutes, allowing occupants time to leave and emergency services time to extinguish the blaze before it spreads. In this case, 20 floors were engulfed in a matter of minutes, meaning the evacuation plan of ‘stay put’ was not sufficient to save the lives of the residents. The lack of compartmentalisation, leading to stairwells reportedly filled with smoke, would also have significantly hindered the London Fire Brigade’s ability to fight any fire and get to those who so needed rescuing.
This shockingly rapid spread will also likely be attributed to inferior building materials (in relation to combustibility) being used, and how the use of these managed to circumvent stringent building regulations will be a matter for extensive investigation. The tests used, and wording of regulations will need to be carefully scrutinised, but already reports and discussion in the media, and from those working in the building industry, suggest to me there are some very different interpretations of the guidelines to those fire professionals might expect.
3. Limited preventative measures:
Attitudes about fire safety need to not be ‘what is the minimum we must do to receive a tick of approval?’ but instead, best practice should be standard. Fire safety professionals know that sprinklers save lives, and cost effectiveness studies by BRE have shown that sprinklers are cost effective in buildings over 30m in height, and are at least likely to be cost neutral in buildings over 18m. Though sprinklers are not a panacea, they can limit an initial ignition source longer than without, and they give valuable minutes to both fire fighters coming in to fight a fire, and those escaping it. Some local authorities have already stated they will be installing them, and I hope many more follow.
It can be easy to look at an incident like this with a purely scientific perspective, looking at how and why this happened as an equation needing to be solved, removed from the personal and social impacts. But the truth is, this is bigger than an equation. Lives were needlessly lost, and I hope the voices of bereaved families and communities are heard, and standards are raised so that we never see another Grenfell Tower disaster again.