The Grenfell Tower Fire: Background to an Atrocity
THE GRENFELL TOWER FIRE: BACKGROUND TO AN ATROCITY
The fire safety regime and the fire and rescue service
A new pamphlet produced by the Fire Brigades Union
Foreword by Matt Wrack, FBU General Secretary
The Grenfell Tower fire on 14 June 2017 was one of the most appalling tragedies of recent times and one which I and others have described as an atrocity. This is the worst fire in terms of fire deaths within living memory in the UK. Police announced in November 2017 that 71 victims had been formally identified and that they believed all those who died had been recovered. Since then there has been a further death related to the fire.
The fact that this appalling incident happened in one of the richest boroughs in the capital city of one of the richest countries in the world only increases the horror with which Grenfell should be viewed. These deaths did not occur as a result of war or terrorism. Indeed had that been the case, we are likely to have seen more urgent and immediate action by central government. No, these deaths resulted from what started as a domestic fire, the sort of event that happens every day in the UK. A domestic fire is a terrible event for those concerned but it can normally be contained: firefighters regularly fight fires in blocks of flats and other residential properties.
So there are huge questions about how what started in this way became such an immense horror. Perhaps above all, it remains utterly shocking that hundreds of buildings have been deliberately wrapped in dangerous flammable material. We need to examine the regime – the systems of regulations, inspection and enforcement – which allowed this to happen. And we need to examine who allowed those systems of rules and regulations to come into place: these were political decisions. The FBU is immensely proud of our members – firefighters, officers and emergency control staff – who did everything possible to save lives during the Grenfell Tower fire. We will not rest until those who were negligent and culpable for the fire have been brought to justice.
The FBU is participating in the public inquiry and various other government and fire service investigations to work out what went wrong and what lessons can be learned. Others, including politicians at national level, have also praised firefighters for their role that night. Unfortunately, the same politicians dismiss the concerns raised by firefighters over matters that are directly relevant to what happened at Grenfell Tower. This pamphlet sets out what has happened to the regime covering fire safety and the fire and rescue service. It shows a pattern of deregulation and fragmentation over four decades. On many occasions the FBU and others highlighted safety concerns about this trend. We were ignored. Indeed, as we show in these pages, our direct warnings about flammable cladding were ignored.
The FBU wants a wide ranging inquiry into the Grenfell Tower fire, encompassing the longstanding deregulation agenda, the whole fire and rescue service and social housing, as the victims and residents have also demanded. We want to ensure ministers and those at the top of government are held to account. However the terms of reference for the public inquiry chaired by Martin Moore-Bick are too narrow, seeking to avoid key political questions of deregulation and the culpability of Westminster, as well as concentrating on the London Fire Brigade instead of the wider fire and rescue service.
The FBU believes that the advice given to, and actions taken by, government ministers must be thoroughly examined. Central government has created the regulatory regimes for housing and for fire safety and central government must be held to account for any failings in them. We cannot allow the blame to be placed everywhere else but Whitehall.
Firefighters across the UK know that an incident like the Grenfell Tower fire could have happened in other parts of the UK. Indeed our assessment is that such an incident could have produced far worse results outside London. More than 300 high rise buildings across England may not be fire safe, according to recent audits. Therefore the FBU is publishing this booklet to examine the fire related background issues more deeply. We are the democratic, professional voice of firefighters and other workers within fire and rescue services across the UK. We represent the vast majority of wholetime (full-time) and retained (part-time, on-call) operational firefighters and control staff in the UK.
Our organisation obviously seeks to improve terms, conditions and safety for our members but we also have a long history of fighting for improvements in wider public safety. This has included campaigning in the 1960s and 1970s for legislation to improve fire safety in the workplace, a long fought battle in the 1980s to win legislation covering flammable foam in domestic furniture and, as this document shows, a unique record of highlighting failings in the wider safety regime – including alerting authorities to dangers relating to flammable cladding on buildings.
The FBU believes the deregulation agenda that has dominated public services over the last four decades contributed to the Grenfell Tower fire. The fire safety regime established by central government failed and should be changed completely and fundamentally. Tenants, residents and the voices of local communities need to be treated with respect and listened to. The fire and rescue service has to implement the lessons from other fatalities and major incidents, including those at tower blocks. There need to be national standards and national consultation – especially with the FBU – the voice of those on the frontline.
There must be investment in our service, not more cuts that have already reduced the number of firefighters by a fifth since 2010. All these matters need to be discussed publicly. The FBU is fully committed to ensuring our communities are safe from fire and other hazards. We support campaigns for justice for the victims and residents of Grenfell Tower and for the wider local community. If we are to genuinely pay tribute to those who died, we must fundamentally change the ways in which these issues are dealt with in the future.
The complete pamphlet is available from the Fire Brigades Union
Matt Wrack is also Chair of the LRC