Grenfell Tower: the chronicle of a tragedy foretold

Government and councils were warned repeatedly about fire safety experts dreads over tower blocks as far back as 1999

The residents of Grenfell Tower were alarmed to discover smoke pouring from their electrical appliances in May 2013. Laptops, televisions, cleaning machines and fridges were damaged by an unexplained series of power surges that inspired the frightened occupants of the 24 -storey tower in west London to descend on their estate office, demanding action and answers.

In an email to Robert Black, CEO of the Kensington and Chelsea Tenant Management Organisation( KCTMO ), which manages the 1970 s social housing property on behalf of the local authority, one resident explained we had numerous power surges in the space of a minute, and in that process my computer and monitor literally explosion, with smoking oozing out from the back.

According to the July minutes of the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelseas housing and property scrutiny committee, KCTMO carried out some repairs and continue to monitor the situation. It is too early to say whether the problem has been fully resolved and here responsibility lies for the cause. It is possible that the flaw that has been rectified is not the primary cause.

The cause of the surges, which are now likely to be reviewed following claims that last weeks flame started when nearby residents fridge ran up in flames, were just one of many concerns about fire security that the residents have raised with KCTMO down the years. As far back as 2004 they flagged up issues such as the buildings emergency lighting system, which was supposed to activate in the event of a fire.

KCTMO denied there was a problem. But an independent consultancy it hired to look into the matter disagreed and issued a series of urgent recommendations for how the organizations of the system had to be improved. An evaluation five years ago suggested monthly inspections of fire extinguishers were not being carried out. In some occurrences, the extinguishers had not been tested for years.

More lately the Grenfell Action Group( GAG ), which represents the interests of the largely immigrant renters who lived in the tower, warned about the fire threat were imposed by discarded rubbish, and complained that parked vehicles were blocking access for the emergency services. The councils much-vaunted 10 m two-year transformation of the tower completed in 2016 was another source of concern.

In an email sent in 2014 to the chief flame officer at Kensington fire station, the states members of GAG used to say residents feared the improvement works had turned the building into a fire trap. He wrote: There is only one entry and exit to the tower block itself and, in the event of a flame, the London fire brigade could only gain access to the entryway to the building by climbing four flights of narrow stairs. On top of this, the fire escape exit on the walkway level has now been sealed. Residents of Grenfell Tower do not have any confidence that our build has been satisfactorily assessed to cope with the new improvement works.

Angry that their concerns appeared to be falling on deaf ears, in June 2016 the residents association attended the councils housing and property scrutiny committee and let rend. They presented a survey suggesting that 90% of them were unhappy with the improvement works and that 68% of them believed they had been lied to, threatened or pressured by KCTMO, which they accused of serial incompetence.

In a horribly prescient blog post, written last November, they said that they had reached the conclusion that merely an incident that results in serious loss of life of KCTMO residents will allow the external scrutiny to result that they are able to shine a light on the practices that characterise the malign governance of this non-functioning organisation.

Time, and a public investigation, will help establish whether a lax flame security culture was operating at Grenfell Tower. But it is clear that the failings that resulted in last weeks catastrophic loss of life are not confined to one organisation or one London borough. Tragically for the main victims, the latter are manifold, the results of systemic tensions that spring from trying to provide that most basic of wants shelter at a time when budgets are stretched and politicians priorities lie elsewhere.

On New Years Eve 2016 a huge fire rent through Dubais luxury Address Downtown Hotel, a 72 -storey tower that stands opposite the Burj Khalifa, the worlds tallest building. The Downtown blaze followed fires at two other landmark Dubai houses, the Marina Torch and the Tamweel Tower.

As with fires that devastated houses in other parts of the Countries of the middle east, China, France, Turkey, and now Grenfell Tower, the buildings exterior cladding is believed to have been a factor in the spread of the flames. But concerns about the increasing employ of cheaper, synthetic composites in place of conventional building materials, such as steel and specific, are not new.

In 1991, the flammability of garbing was a key factor in the fire that destroyed an apartment block in Knowsley Heights, Liverpool. In 1999, expert witness to the environment, transport and regional affairs committee, including the Fire Brigades Union and the Loss Prevention Council the technological consultants to the insurance industry suggested that the guidelines on clothing were inadequate.

The Building Research Establishment, which advises the governmental forces on safety and carries out exams on building materials, agreed that the existing guidance was far from being totally adequate.

Alarmed at the implications, the committee wrote to councils asking to receive from you assurances that any clothing systems which may be used on any buildings, particularly multistorey tower blocks, in your area are not in any way susceptible to the risk of serious fire spread on the face of, or instantly behind the cladding.

But this latest alarm bell clearly ringing did not stop the trend for cladding the outside of Britains ageing tower blocks. Not merely did cladding help insulate the towers, letting governments to meet energy-saving targets, it transformed the concrete behemoths that mushroomed across urban Britain in the 60 s and 70 s and were viewed as unsightly compared with their glass-and-steel successors.

Grenfell Towers 10 m makeover insured it encased in aluminium composite panels that have a synthetic core and are manufactured by a subsidiary of a US firm, Arconic. Some of the more expensive cores are more flame resistant but Grenfell was fitted with a cheaper version, banned in the US for taller builds because of safety concerns. Some estimations suggest that the additional cost of fitting the fire-resistant product would have been as little as 5,000.

Rydon, the contractor that oversaw the renovations, having taken the contract from another firm, Leadbitter, whose original 11.6 m quote for the job was considered too high, insisted that the work met all fire regulations. And Harley Facades, the company that fitted the members of the commission, said in a statement soon after the fire: We are not aware of any link between the fire and the exterior cladding to the tower.

Firefighters inside the charred is still in Grenfell Tower on Saturday 17 June. Photograph: Tolga Akmen/ AFP/ Getty Images

But David Sibert, flame security consultant to the Fire Brigades Union, told: It appears from what weve seen that the cladding certainly did play a part. It may be fully compliant with the legislation and the problem may be with the tests that are linked to the legislation.

Put simply, small-scale laboratory tests may not be able to reproduce the true effects of a blaze at a tower block. Sibert asked: Does the way a material is installed in a test replicate the style it is installed in real life? There may be gaps when its installed between one piece and another, whereas merely one solid piece is tested.

Grenfells makeover, however, was not just an external undertaking. A communal heating system was installed, and new gas tubes were fitted in the stairwells. Did this have consequences for the towers communal areas?

I would be interested to know why it was that the passageways and staircases became smoke-logged, Sibert said. If you had a single flame in a single flat, if the building works properly, there should be virtually no smoke in the hallway and no smoking in the staircases. If there is smoke it indicates there is something wrong with the compartmentation.

A fire last April at another property managed by KCTMO, the 31 -storey Trellick Tower, indicates there was something catastrophically different about the design of Grenfell Tower. According to the councils minutes, the Trellick fire did not spread and was contained within … indicating that the levels of compartmentation both between neighbouring flats and also between the flat and the communal areas are of the required level.

In a newsletter to residents, dated May 2016, KCTMO and Rydon jointly explained that the towers smoke detecting systems have been upgraded and extended. But some residents claim the alarms failed to go off.

The Metropolitan police last night said that 58 people had either died in Grenfell Tower or were missing, presumed dead. The tragedy has raised anxieties about security at the rest of the UKs 4,000 or so tower blocks and, including with regard to, the 87 the hell is garb with similar materials to Grenfell Tower.

A fire caused by a faulty tumble drier at a social housing tower block, in nearby Shepherds Bush raised concerns about the flammability of modern building materials as recently as last August.

Last October, the London fire brigade wrote to Hammersmith and Fulham council explaining that it had witnessed exams that raised concerns about the insulation material that had been used in the Shepherds Bush towers panelling.

Once exposed, the insulation, as well as the wooden backing, appears to contribute to the combustion process, potentially increasing the size of the flames and flame. Therefore the facade system may have contributed to the external fire spread.

In a letter obtained under the Freedom of Information Act, members of the council answered: We are surprised to be informed of any flame hazard associated with the facade panels, as we had no knowledge of this prior to your letter. We invite you to confirm who carried out the testing referred to, as you appear only to have witnessed it.

Fear that councils were ignorant of the fire risks associated with tower blocks prompted the governmental forces chief fire and rescue adviser to recommend to the London Assembly in 2010 that an extensive programme of auditing of … high-rise blocks should be undertaken to determine whether or not suitable and sufficient fire-risk assessments are already in place. It are not aware if the borough of Kensington and Chelsea acted on this advice.

The recommendation followed the 2009 fire at Lakanal House, a tower block in Southwark, south London, which killed six people. In 2013, Frances Kirkham, the coroner who conducted the inquest, outlined several suggestions as to how a similar tragedy could be avoided. in the future.

Kirkham said there was a need to resolve conflicting guidance for those in high-rise blocks as to whether they should stay put or get out, stay out. Fire safety notices told Grenfell Tower residents to stay put. Several believe they are alive only since they are ignored this advice.

Kirkham also recommended that the government encourage councils to retrofit sprinklers in tower blocks. But the governmental forces saw this as an unnecessary burden and suggested instead that it be left to the fire industry to encourage their wider installation.

This was a tragic missed possibility, according to Sibert. If the building had been provided with sprinklers then that fire, if it started in the kitchen, would never have got out of the kitchen and nobody except the firefighters who would have gone there to mop up would have known about it.

Sprinklers were retrofitted in a similar tower at Callow Mount in Sheffield two years ago at a cost of 1,100 per flat. The Fire Brigades Union claims there has never been a multiple death in a building fitted with sprinklers.

In Wales, any new residential accommodation must have sprinklers, but in England this rule applies only to blocks of flats more than 30 metres high. And if its for students or student nurses it doesnt need sprinklers because they are classed as other residential, Sibert said. Thats a piece of nonsense that needs sorting out. In her recommendations, Kirkham acknowledged the need to overhaul building regulations governing fire security, something others agree is long overdue.

We have been signalling for years that the building regulations were not robust enough and “were in” ignored by government after government, Baroness Brinton, the Lib Dem peer who sits on the all-party parliamentary group on fire security, told the Observer .

In 2015, the then communities minister, Stephen Williams, told parliament that a review of building regulations would be delivered before the end of the financial, year 2016 -1 7. But three successive housing ministers including Gavin Barwell, the prime ministers new chief of staff have failed to deliver on the promise. The review hasnt started, Sibert explained. Its being kicked down the road.

Whitehall insiders suspect that civil servant have been diverted away from the review to other, ostensibly more pressing issues, chiefly the need to deliver Brexit. In the lacuna, policing the archaic building regulations has been hampered by the need for local authorities to attain savings.

A 2014 report by the London Fire and Emergency Planning Authority warned of the consequences of councils in-house constructing control teams having to compete against private contractors. The authority told: The fact that there is rivalry sets pressure into the system, by potentially decreasing rigour in an effort to win run. Some in-house teams convey fear that their own council colleague project policemen could prefer other providers. Projects are signed off before they should be because of pressure for schemes to be completed.

Historically, an additional level of oversight has been provided by the fire services fire security departments who carry out on-site inspections. But it is estimated that the number of dedicated inspectors has halved in the past decades as the government has looked to build savings. Sibert said: In order to protect the front line firefighters on the engines fire security departments were among the first to be cut to save money.

Now the rationale for those cuts is under scrutiny and the anger being developed on a paralysed Westminster is giving way to fury. As someone tweeted: Cost of general election 130 m. Additional cost of fire resistant cladding for Grenfell Tower: 5,000.

Make sure to visit: