Judy Terry is a marketing professional and a former local councillor in Suffolk.
Few people watching the horrors of Grenfell unfold on the news in June 2017 would have been left dry-eyed. How could this happen in London’s richest borough, in the world’s fifth richest country?
The Government quickly initiated a fire safety review, by Dame Judith Hackitt. She published her initial findings, “Independent Review of Building Regulations & Fire Safety” in December 2017.
In the introduction, Dame Judith noted that ‘the regulatory system for ensuring fire safety in high rise and complex buildings are not fit for purpose’. Some headlines were:
- Clarity of roles & responsibility poor;
- Competency of key people inadequate;
- Compliance, enforcement & sanctions too weak;
- Route for residents to escalate concerns unclear & inadequate;
- System of product testing, marketing & quality assurance unclear.
Her final report, ‘Building a Safer Future’ published in May 2018 further castigated the regulatory system and those supposed to be responsible for delivering quality buildings:
- Ignorance: regulations and guidance not always read by those who need to … leading to misunderstanding & misinterpretation;
- Indifference: primary motivation to do things as quickly & cheaply as possible, ignoring concerns raised by residents or building workers;
- Failure to prioritise safety, using ambiguity of regulations & guidance to ‘game the system’.
Reading these comments is enough to make your blood boil.
The first phase of the Grenfell Inquiry has ended, and will undoubtedly address the serious shortcomings, with its own recommendations, in due course. However, it is worth remembering that, despite other major incidents across the country (and, indeed, the world) in previous decades, nothing had changed to ensure no repetition, leading to lives being sacrificed.
Ironically, Fire Service professionals were only too aware of the inherent dangers, but were not listened to. Yet research shows that 80 per cent of fire deaths occur in the home, and fire sprinklers, coupled with smoke alarms, reduce the risk of death or serious injury by over 80 per cent. People are also 57 per cent less likely to die in a fire in a room where sprinklers are installed.
So, on 14th May 2012, Suffolk Fire & Rescue launched ‘Building the Safer Suffolk Sprinkler Coalition’, with “influential government and industry leaders”, pledging support for these lifesaving systems to protect people, homes, businesses, colleges and schools.
Introducing the document, the then-Chief Fire Officer, Andy Fry, said, “we are well aware of the life safety, social, economic and environmental benefits of fire sprinklers, when too often fires, which could have been contained if sprinklers had been installed, destroy lives and property.”
He highlighted the benefits of a joint project with Havebury Housing in Haverhill, where sprinklers were installed to protect vulnerable tenants in nine purpose-built flats. The organisation’s Health & Safety Manager, a former fire officer, emphasised: “the safety of our tenants is paramount and we are engaged in a number of initiatives, including installing smoke and carbon monoxide alarms, as well as sprinkler systems at a number of sites, from apartments to offices, building a strong relationship with Suffolk Fire & Rescue, which shapes our approach to fire safety.”
Whilst comparing actual cases, where sprinklers had enabled fires to be put out quickly, with those where people died and businesses were completely destroyed, Andy Fry went on to dismiss “myths about costs, appearance, installation and operation”. He reiterated the benefits:
- Build fire safety into the fabric of buildings for their full life;
- Save people’s lives, and make firefighters’ work less dangerous;
- Reduce the size of fires and damage;
- Improve business continuity;
- Reduce social and environmental impact of fires.
Although not mentioned in the document, the Fire Service was aware that some domestic electrical products were unsafe. When I sought advice after my own three-year-old cooker had spontaneously set itself alight (I was lucky to be in the kitchen at the time, and was able to put it out) I was warned not to purchase a particular manufacturer’s replacement. I was also warned never to go out and leave a washing machine in mid-cycle. It is alleged in some reports that an electrical appliance caused the Grenfell fire – so one has to wonder if appropriate advice, as well as sprinklers, could have averted the tragedy. The on-going investigations will no doubt clarify.
Meanwhile, Suffolk County Council’s Scrutiny Committee has put the Grenfell first phase report on a future agenda, to assess whether the issues raised so far are being fully addressed. A progress report on whether ‘Building the Safer Suffolk Sprinkler Coalition’ had the desired impact – increasing use of sprinklers – will, hopefully, form part of that debate.
Although the dangers of certain cladding products on high-rise buildings was not included in this document, no doubt it will also be on the agenda, supported by an analysis of planning applications over the last decade, any cladding materials employed, as well as use of fire doors.
Whether planners and councillors receive appropriate training, ensuring that they ask the right questions, and take specialist advice on relevant planning applications should also be included.
It will be argued that building regulations are a separate issue, but consents can be qualified allowing councillors to demand updates on any specific requirements to be brought back to Planning Committee. Given Dame Judith Hackitt’s conclusions that some contractors prioritise speed and cost, instead of safety, and ‘game the system’, it is appropriate for local authorities to enforce compliance and take responsibility for public safety.