For many years I have closely followed the progress of fire fighting in Scottsdale, AZ, a city that incorporated in 1952 with a population of about 2,000 and has grown to more than a quarter million residents today.
Unlike most cities, Scottsdale, following a period of industrial issues with the municipal fire department members, contracted out to a private provider. A key step to reduce the number and size of fires was an ordinance passed in the 1980s requiring that all future buildings have fire sprinklers installed.
No doubt the construction industry objected mightily to such an unwarranted regulatory intervention, predicting the demise of all new development. And, yet, Scottsdale today prospers as a major resort stop drawing more than seven million people annually. An outstanding fire safety record helps, not hurts.
Reducing the number of fires and their severity likewise reduces the need for multiple fire appliances, fuel, crews and support equipment. Fire department operating costs go down, which is exactly what happened in Scottsdale. It was a win-win for all concerned.
The closest comparison in the UK is at Studley Green in Wiltshire where a former chief fire officer managed to get a local bylaw passed requiring that all social housing have residential sprinklers. Again, the result has been no subsequent fatality fires.
That water sprinklers massively improves life safety and cuts fire service costs is a no brainer. All of which brings us to the Grenfell Towers disaster in London in June.
The gutted structure was a 24-story, 220 foot high tower block of public housing apartments or flats. As of this writing, the estimated death toll stands at 78. Only 30 of those deaths have been confirmed. Of the 74 casualties surviving the fire, 17 remain in critical condition.
Unlike the Manchester arena bombing that killed 23 people only weeks earlier, the Grenfell Tower fire has received relatively little press in the US, owing largely to the shooting of U.S. House Majority Whip Steve Scalise and three others the same morning. However, in the UK the fire has prompted major demonstrations against the borough councils in Kensington and Chelsea that own the flats.
For the first time at any major fire in the UK the local population has taken the lead in caring for those now homeless. Donated food and clothing are coming in from across the country. This is in the wake of widespread criticism of the government response and its failure to close huge gaps in the building regulations following another deadly fire in the Lakanal House south London tower block in 2009.
The government, regulators, architect and the fire establishment are now on the back foot as the public who live in these tower blocks have had enough.
Strangely enough, the destruction of this working class tower block in London has a common factor with a fire that extensively damaged the exterior of a luxury high-rise apartment building in Dubai, UAE, in February 2014. Intense flames rose from the 50th to 70th floors within minutes of the first alarm at Dubai’s Marina Torch residential skyscraper.
What fueled the rapid spread of the Dubai fire? Evidence at the scene left little doubt, said Lt. Col Ali Almutawa of Dubai Civil Defense.
“The building’s external finish consists of panels made from two sheets of metal composite with an infill of combustible foam which exhibits rapid flame spread upon fire exposure,” Almutawa said. “It gives good insulation against heat and provides an external finish to the building. However, we have found in several instances that it can be quite flammable.”
Authorities in Dubai banned this particular cladding known as Reynobond in 2011. Unfortunately, that was after completion of the Marina Torch. (See “Flames scorch Dubai tower” in the Spring 2015 issue of Industrial Fire World.) That same exterior panel cladding with a polyethylene fill was applied to the exterior of the Grenfell Tower during a renovation in 2016.
I first followed up on cladding issues in the 1973 Summerland fire in the Isle of Man that killed 53 people. These sandwich panels filled with expanded plastic foam have been a fire problem ever since. However, pressure from builders for cheap construction products has kept them from being banned.
There is a mass of witness evidence as to where the Grenfell Towers fire started, how it spread and even when the first London Fire Brigade appliances arrived on scene. Within minutes of hearing these first reports I knew the cladding had to be involved.
At Dubai, the damage to the 86-story building was mainly external. A more than adequate sprinkler system kept the fire from penetrating deep into the skyscraper. The same cannot be said for Grenfell Towers. The 43-year-old building had no fire sprinklers no working fire alarms or emergency lighting despite the recent renovation.
Management’s longstanding instructions to tenants in case of fire had been to stay in place and wait for rescue. Firefighters arriving at the blaze reissued that order. I have always been against the stay-in-place policy in such emergencies because most housing in the UK does not have sprinklers.
The Building Regulations 2000 in the UK, unlike the NFPA codes, clearly state in the introduction B1.i to the Approved Document B that deals with the majority of buildings in England, that “the regulations assume that in the design of the building reliance should not be placed on external rescue by the Fire & Rescue Service nor should it be based on a presumption that the Fire & Rescue Service will attend an incident within a given time.”
The regulations are designed around this premise that occupants, including disabled persons, must be able to evacuate the premises by their own means without a reliance on the fire and rescue service. Therefore the concept of wait in your own flat until the firefighters arrive is totally flawed.
I know of at least one fire authority that uses the building regulations statement above to justify multiple fire station closures and many fire authorities have used the same section, B1.i, to lengthen the time for the first fire appliance to reach the scene of the fire.
Due to serious budget cuts fire and rescue services have made cuts in fire stations and firefighters. Many will no longer attend to automatic fire alarms unless a telephone call is received to confirm there is a fire. Reductions in fire safety checks of buildings have taken place all over the UK.
The first London Fire Brigade appliance arrived at Grenfell Towers within six minutes of the initial 999 emergency call being received. Quite rightly the bravery of the hundreds of firefighters going into the burning tower in a manner similar to that of the World Trade Center in New York has received much public support and admiration.
It is worth noting that before the new Fire Service Act in 2004, the government required a minimum response of two fire appliances within five minutes in any similar built-up municipal area. Now fire authorities set their own standards for first response.
In London alone, fire safety checks have been cut by 25 percent since 2010. Ten fire stations have closed and 600 firefighter positions have been cut. Over the UK as a whole fire protection functions with 10,000 fewer firefighters than 2010.
What about fire inspections? In 2006, the Regulatory Reform (Fire Safety) Order came into force. It is the prime fire safety legislation governing all places where people work, reside and entertain. Backing the order is series of 16 guidance documents subsequently issued by the government. The original idea was to relieve the fire brigades from inspecting all such premises. The people responsible for these buildings could use the guidance issued by the government to carry out a fire risk assessment without having to employ a fire risk assessor.
The first of these guidance documents, issued in 2006, covered fire safety risk assessments for offices and shops. Section 1, headed “insulated core panels,” gives a full description of different types of inner core panels and flammability of these panels ranging from non-combustible through to highly flammable.
Using six bullet points, section 1 explains in graphic detail the core products and what will happen in a fire situation. These bullet points predict exactly what happened to the exterior cladding panels in the Grenfell Tower fire. The penultimate paragraph states “In areas where there is a considerable life risk, it may be appropriate to consider replacing combustible panels, providing a fire suppression system and installing non-combustible fire breaks between panels at suitable intervals.”
This guidance document was posted on the government’s own website at the time of the Grenfell Tower fire, meaning sound, practical advice on insulated core panels was freely available. But strangely, additional government guidance documents such as “Sleeping Accommodation,” produced in December 2012, reduced by half the equivalent section on insulated core panels with information about the combustible nature of the polymeric flammable cores removed. It is this watered down document referred to by the Local Authorities Coordinators of Regulatory Services (LACORS) in its guidance directed at residential blocks such as Grenfell Towers.
The government has been forced to order a full public enquiry into the Grenfell Towers fire. However, the population has little faith in these enquiries after the tarnished results of the Hillsborough football stadium investigation that blamed fans for a human crush that killed nearly 100 despite the questionable actions of the police.
With regard to sprinkler protection and an understanding of the massive life safety role that sprinkler play, the USA is way ahead of the UK and most other countries. A major part of why England lags behind the US is the pressure that the construction industry and even water providers have put on the government to keep building and water costs down.
Scottish building regulations mandate sprinklers in all buildings more than 18 meters (59 feet) high. In England, a building must be 30 meters (98 feet) high before sprinklers are required.
Grenfell Towers is destined to be a major turning point in UK fire legislation, the relationship of the general population with the government and the political establishment at all levels A little political courage al la Scottsdale or Studley Green decades earlier could have spared us so much grief today.
Richard Coates is an independent fire inspector.