We woke this morning to another unimaginable tragedy, this time in West Kensington. We are going through one of those cycles of bad news upon bad news and we all wonder where it will end. For most of us the cycle will flatten out and we’ll move on but for the participants of last nights events there will be no end. A good friend of mine still suffers from flashbacks and smells the rich smell of AvGas whenever he sees a Salvation Army collector or band. They are one of the images imprinted on his mind from Lockerbie when they were handing out tea and sandwiches to soldiers and others tasked with their gruesome clean-up work. Indeed, looking at the pictures on television of what can only be termed a disaster one could be forgiven for thinking that the ghost of the tragedy visited on that Border town had risen last night in West London.
There will be deep and extensive analysis of what conspired to cause an apparently small kitchen fire to rage out of control and reach the upper stories within, it is said, just 15 minutes. I am no expert in fire, fire prevention or fire fighting but still feel obliged to ask as a concerned citizen, just three questions,
Which genius thought it was a good idea to spend ten million pounds cladding the structure in wood, plastic and polyurethane with a cavity turning a run of the mill 1970’s tower block into one big chimney, or should I say crematorium. Did no-one, no-one at all hear the nonsense alarm going off? In the planning application for the building refurbishment more concern appears to have been extended to trees than to the external building fabric. You don’t have to be an architectural genius do work out the implicit fire risk. No, you could just think, or Google, because the information telling us that polymeric core materials will burn at temperatures well below that of developed fires is hardly difficult to find. Here is an example,
The mechanisms of external fire spread are succinctly summarised by the author of UK Building Research Establishment (BRE) report BR 135 (see below):
“ The mechanisms by which fire can spread externally include combustible materials and cavities – either as part of a system, or those created by delamination of the system or material loss during the fire. Once flames enter a cavity they have the potential to travel significant distances, giving rise to the risk of unseen fire spread within the cladding systems.” External Fire Spread – The testing of building cladding systems, Sarah Colwell, BRE
Nor is West Kensington the first example seen in the UK. There were at least 30 fires in the 1990’s in the UK involving composite panels and a series of well publicised fires in the Gulf and Asia in recent years. I won’t go into any more detail, the information is readily available for anyone who seeks it out, including the link above. Suffice to say, someone, or more likely some people should swing for what happened today. It so didn’t need to happen.
My second point is even simpler. Of course fireman did today the brave things that firemen do. It takes a special kind of courage to walk up flights of stairs in breathing apparatus in a smoke filled building of questionable structural integrity which is burning itself to a cinder, as the NY Fire Service can readily attest to. Why though were the London Fire Brigade as recently as last Saturday advising residents in the block that in the event of fire they should ‘stay put.’ It takes a special kind of imagination to believe that you can be safer on top of a burning building than attempting to make good your escape down the stairs. What were they thinking? Did they not look at the experience of 9/11 when many died because they were told to stay where they were rather than attempt to escape? Even easier, just watch Towering Inferno. Get out and get out quickly.
I think we pretty much know what is coming next and that will be a demonstration of prevarication rather than decisiveness from virtually all involved. There will be an inquiry and soothing words to allay fear. Actually, what the public should demand is action. We have a generational problem with our public bureaucrats and politicians in that not only do none of them want to take responsibility for their actions but none want to take any decisions which might lead to career risk. Moreover, any individuals in opposition seeking gain from this tragedy need to be put firmly in their place. Even a cursory look at the history of building regulations in this country and parliamentary reports scream that the lot of them are culpable.
Here’s a clue. The Government should immediately announce an inspection programme of every public and private building of more than five stories with cladding, to begin tomorrow. No if’s, but's or maybes. Anything sub standard must be ripped down and rebuilt. All new builds must have sprinklers and anything else that prolongs survivability in towers. The government will immediately review the veracity of smoke hoods and will quickly initiate a national programme to encourage the purchase of smoke hoods by householders if lives might be saved by their use. The Fire Service will immediately review it’s advice to householders in tower blocks and had better have a bloody good reason for telling them to stay in the middle of a fire if their review concludes that that particular advice is not suicidal bollocks.
Concrete bollards that obstruct fire engines from getting to their deployment points on the scene. Seriously?
Finally, I save a special remark of contempt for the Channel 4 news reporter John Snow who elevated insensitivity to new levels today. In an interview, while bodies were being counted, he demanded that Nick Paget-Brown, the leader of Kensington & Chelsea council, promise the survivors that the smouldering burnt out shell behind them would not be turned into a new block of private luxury flats. It was a cheap and nasty thing to say to a man who had done the right thing and been available for interview all day and, whilst not condoning any errors of judgement in relation to planning that may have been made in the past, certainly didn’t deserve that. That though, is Channel 4 for you and that, is pretty much John Snow.