Wednesday, 21 June 2017

Grenfell House Fire.

Exterior fire spread discussed by Tim Veater.,c_limit,f_auto,q_auto:best/GettyImages-695781690_js5kch/police-man-a-security-cordon-as-a-fire-engulfs-the-grenfell-tower-in-west-london.jpg

Now let me deal with a number of issues in relation to the external spread of fire. 

From the above photograph, taken probably less than half an hour after the fire erupted, certain features can be observed. 

The fire has already reached to the top of the building on at least two exterior elevations, setting alight the interior rooms as it progressed. With reference to the above photograph, it would appear the surface cladding on the left hand elevation, where it is claimed the fire started within a fourth floor flat, at this point has in fact burnt out, leaving fires, within virtually all the flats on that elevation.

Live video of the event can be seen here:

Meanwhile, fire still rages in a diagonal line of flame on the right hand elevation, setting alight to flats as it progressed. Significantly please note how this upward movement of flame appears to be contra-indicated on the far right. I would suggest that this is because it travelled down the corner vertical rib feature, suggesting no effective fire breaks had been incorporated in the design. 

This conclusion is supported by the following image after the fire had been extinguished (below).

Note how consistently there is evidence that fire has travelled down the vertical ribs beyond the face particularly in respect of the far right corner. Apparently in this manner fire traversed from just one side to all four! This is quite remarkable. 

Plainly, not only was the cladding highly flammable, there were no effective fire stops either vertically or laterally. Indeed the material and design of the vertical ribs appears to have facilitated the spread upwards and downwards, and significantly around the corners of the building. The damage to the four elevations is represented in the following diagram:

From the above BBC illustration it would appear from the initial fire location on the North East corner of the building, flame spread predominantly upwards in both directions, subsequently engulfing the South and West elevations also. It is also likely that wind direction played a significant part in the flame progression.

The above diagram is supported by this image of the still smoking tower block, facing the morning sun and so revealing the western and southern elevations to left and right.

The fire was obviously hot enough to breach any barrier provided by the windows and set fire to flat interiors that were extensively damaged. Whether there were any other factors that supported the interior fires, awaits to be seen but there are some puzzling images of intense flame whist combustible items such as cupboards remain largely undamaged. This needs to be explained particularly in relation to possible gas supply.

Apart from the basic problem of inadequate fire stops, it is clear that the cladding itself demonstrated no evidence of fire resistance. Indeed it appears to have been highly flammable. It is quite astounding that such a material was specified and/or approved for such use, if indeed it was. Only a searching investigation, including the examination and testing of remaining panels, will determine this point. 

It has been reported that the fire-resistant version would have added only £5,000 to the overall cost. In view of earlier incidents around the world and specific warnings, it is hard to view this decision as other than scandalously reckless!

The exterior cladding, consists of a 3mm composite panel - a 'sandwich' of aluminium and polythene. (See diagrams above and below) The polyethylene is flammable, the aluminium is not. In a statement issued after the disaster at the end of last weekthe Department for Communities clarified the legal position as follows: 

“Cladding using a composite aluminium panel with a polyethylene core would be non-compliant with current Building Regulations guidance. This material should not be used as cladding on buildings over 18m in height.”

If this is the official government position, the question remains how it came to be used and escaped all the professional and administrative hurdles in the process?

Wikipedia states: 

"In September 2014 a building regulation notice a for the recladding work was submitted to the authority, and marked with a status of "Completed—not approved"The use of a "Building Notice" building control application is used to remove the need to submit detailed plans and proposals to a building control inspector in advance, where the works performed will be approved by the inspector during the course of their construction. Building inspector Geoff Wilkinson remarked that this type of application is "wholly inappropriate for large complex buildings and should only be used on small, simple domestic buildings"" (4)

The obvious question to be answered by any enquiry therefore is: 

  • Why was the cladding specified and allowed to be used in this case?
  • Did the architects specify it knowing it breached Building Regulations?
  • Did the clients through their architects, seek Building Regulations approval or did it escape such oversight as a self-certification?
  • Could it have happened if previous governments had not relaxed the planning/building regulations legal framework allowing developers to self-certify works of this nature?
  • Or is there evidence that a cheaper material had been substituted from that specified?

The panels are made by an American firm, "Arconic". Its web page here ( states: 

"Arconic has been helping advance innovation in building design for well over a century. We invented the look of the modern downtown, and then, from the Statue of Liberty to the US Bank Stadium—home of the Minnesota Vikings—we’ve never looked back. Arconic’s Kawneer, Reynobond and Reynolux technology can be found across skylines the world over.
"Our breakthrough technologies serve a larger purpose—high-thermal performance to meet growing demand for energy efficiency. Resiliency, to protect against hurricanes and natural disasters. And blast mitigation to protect what’s inside—all while advancing the boundaries of architectural design."

In the light of Grenfell this may be cause for some concern!
The company claims to be a very ethical one. It states: 

"Arconic is a Values-based company
Our Values guide our behavior at every level and apply across the Company on a global basis. We expect all directors, officers and employees to conduct business in compliance with our Business Conduct Policies and we survey compliance with these policies on an annual basis. The Board has adopted a number of policies to support our values and good corporate governance, which we believe are important to the success of our business and in advancing shareholder interests. Our Corporate Governance Guidelines along with our Certificate of Incorporation, By-Laws, board committee charters, Director Independence StandardsCode of Ethics for the CEO, CFO and Other Financial Professionals and Related Person Transaction Approval Policyform the foundation for the governance of Arconic."

The question to be posed is: 
  • Does it do all that it realistically can to warn buyers of the limitations of its products as well as its advantages, with all the necessary precautions to be applied?
  • More specifically did it do so in the case of the Grenfell Tower refurbishment?
  • If it knew of inherent dangers in relation to exterior cladding and fire why did it not insist that fire retardant panel were used?

Structure of an ACM sandwich panel. In the case of Reynobond PE, aluminum sheets' thickness is 0.5 mm (0.020 in) and overall panel thickness is either 3, 4 or 6 mm.

The precise specification can be found here: (3)

The above diagram may misrepresent the material actually used on Grenfell insofar as the overall depth of the panel we are told was three (3) mm. If so the polypropylene (polythene) filling would be only two (2) mm and proportionately much thinner than that shown. 

This does raise the fundamental question: 

  • why the panels were so innately flammable?

Physical Properties of Aluminium in Fire

As probably most people know, there are three basic requirements for combustion (fire oxygenation) to take place: heat, oxygen and fuel. Although plastic is flammable, aluminium isn't. Aluminium is rated AA for fire resistance. It melts at 660 degrees Centigrade - twice the temperature required to melt lead. It melts but will not burn. See below (1) Although this document (2) gives ranges of 935 to 1215 degrees F. clearly much lower. I am not a metallurgist and so unable to explain this wide divergence in physical properties but it needs to be.

In practice the compressed laminated nature of the panel would prevent the air (oxygen) getting to the interior polythene layer which in any event at just 2 mm thick, it is hard to see how it would generate so much flame and heat, without some additional physical factor involved. 

In addition, aluminium is very good at conducting heat, which would have the effect of reducing surface temperature, yet this appears to have had no mitigating effect, the fire raging white hot and emitting grey coloured smoke suggestive of the aluminium itself being consumed. This is quite extraordinary and proves the temperature of the blaze must have been in excess of 660 degrees at least.

The basic questions to be answered therefore are:

  • What was the melting point of the aluminium alloy panel actually used?
  • How was it possible given the laminated construction denying air access to the flammable polythene core, was such an intense fire allowed to take hold?
  • Given the fact that aluminium melts but does not burn and only a relatively thin (2 mm) of inflammable plastic was available to support combustion, how can the intense heat, white-hot flame, white smoke and incredible speed of spread, be explained?
  • Was the aluminium material used for these specific panels altered in any way to support combustion? 

All this information should already be available to investigators if urgent tests have been carried out under controlled conditions, as of course they should have been.

Architects for the scheme

The refurbishing scheme was supervised by Studio E Architects, based at As such this firm would carry the ultimate responsibility for the specification and standard of work.

The schemes in which the firm has been involved are listed on its web site. They appear to be predominantly social and educational, many benefiting from Government policy and grants. A photograph of the Grenfell building on completion and prior to the fire, is still featured on the firms web page (as of 21.6.2017)

Over 120 clients are listed including many related to central and local government, particularly in the capital.


Andrzej Kuszell
RIBA, DipArch
Andrzej Kuszell is a Founding Director of Studio E Architects. His main drive has been to develop and raise the practice’s architectural profile with a particular focus in education and sports/leisure design. With a passion for surpassing his clients’ expectations, he has become a recognized innovator in both sectors with results founded on a commitment to holistic sustainability, collaborative teamwork and a recognition that every project is special.
Responsible for a succession of award winning projects, these have included a range of new buildings at Haileybury College, the aspirational Leisure Centre for the American Community School in Cobham, the green exemplar Larmenier and Sacred Heart Primary School and the City of London Academy, Southwark which won the 2006 Prime Minister’s Better Public Building Award. In the last 6 years Andrzej has taken the lead in the design of five new Academies, two new Primary Schools as well as new International Schools in the Middle East. These projects included the City Academy, Hackney which won the BCSE Best Academy Award as well as the recently completed Kensington Aldridge Academy. In the same period the practice has twice won the BCSE School Architect of the Year Award.

David Lloyd Jones
David is a Founding Director of Studio E Architects. An acknowledged expert and innovator in energy conscious and sustainable architecture he is responsible for a body of research work and publications that have informed Studio E Architects projects across the board. He has led on a sequence of award winning sustainable projects across a range of sectors. These have included Doxford International Solar Office, the Beaufort Zero Emissions Building, Grange Park Opera House and Townley Grammar School for Girls. Recent work has extended to master planning of the City of London Freemen’s School, the refurbishment of Highgrove Pool, designs for a new sports pavilion at Hackney Marshes and proposals for a new Arts and Crafts Institute in Pakistan. He overviews the practice’s QMS and drives the practice’s policies for high achievement in sound, energy conscious environmental design


We are deeply shocked and distressed over news of the devastating fire at Grenfell Tower. Our thoughts are with those that have been affected by this tragic incident, together with all of their relatives and friends. It would be inappropriate for us to comment or speculate on events on Wednesday morning. We will be available to assist the relevant authorities as and when we are required. Our website was temporarily shut down yesterday as a result of the number of requests received.

In contrast an earlier happier story: 


"Transformational new school and leisure centre receive Royal stamp of approval!
"On Monday 19th January 2015 Kensington Aldridge Academy, together with the Kensington Leisure Centre, received a Royal Opening. A special moment for this corner of North Kensington after 3 years of design and construction. Studio E Architects were the master plan lead for the entire project and architects for the Academy."

The critical questions that presumably have been posed of the architects will have been:
  • Did you specify the materials and fixing method of the external cladding in particular?
  • Did you supervise its installation and sign off on the work?
  • Were you satisfied that in all respects the work was completed in accordance with the specification?
  • As respects to the interior upgrading, did you make any recommendations to the clients (the Royal Borough of Kensington or Tenant Management Organisation) on matters of fire or general safety, and if so were they all adopted?
  • On completion of the works did you have any further dealings with the clients with regard to the building specifically regarding tenants representations on safety or the satisfactory nature of the works and if so what?

Main Contractor

The firm primarily responsible for carrying out the work was Rydans Construction based in Essex. Their  web site is here: 

It states: 

"From our beginnings in 1978, Rydon has grown into a multi-faceted company, employing over 750 people.Rydon delivers quality solutions in the built environment for education, housing and healthcare to shape and advance people’s lives."

Beside much other work and clients we are informed that: 

"Rydon has been working with the MoD for several years as a partner on the Aspire Defence Capital Works through the Allenby/Connaught framework, the largest infrastructure Private Finance Initiative project ever let by the Ministry of Defence.

"Our role has been to support Aspire Defence in the modernisation and reprovision of a significant number of military facilities around Salisbury Plain.

"To date, Rydon has won in excess of £50m of work across over 25 projects through the framework, all of which have been delivered on live operational military bases."

A chosen contractor for works is not responsible for the design of the scheme, only the competent implementation of it. 

The question for the main contractor therefore must be:

  • Did you carry out the works in complete accordance with the plans and specification or did you alter any of them in respect of either the materials used or the way in which they were applied? 
  • Did you at any stage have any reservations concerning these or make any representations concerning any matters that impinged on safety and particularly fire safety?

Cladding Contractors

The actual cladding work was carried by Harley Facades Ltd. The company's web site is here: This element of the refurbishment was contracted for £2.3 m. 

The web site states:

"Harley Facades Ltd provides a comprehensive design and construction package for building envelopes including; curtain walling, windows, doors, structural glazing, and rainscreen cladding systems. Incorporating curtain walling and rainscreen into your concept design, can create a unique and cost effective solution for your building. Curtain walling and rainscreen is suitable for both new build and refurbishment projects. Harley Facades Limited has successfully undertaken projects throughout the UK involving curtain walling and rainscreen."

"Owner and Managing Director, Ray Bailey, formed the original Harley business in 1996.  With a move to it's own brand new purpose built offices in December 2003, Harley had now become well established as one of the leaders in the field of designing and constructing complete building envelopes. A further development came with the formation of Harley Facades Ltd, a business to focus on the specialist refurbishment market including high rise residential tower blocks."


"Harley Facades Limited completed the refurbishment work to Grenfell Tower.  This included the installation of exterior cladding. The Aluminium Composite Material (ACM) panels are a commonly used product in the refurbishment industry.  Harley Facades Limited do not manufacture these panels.
"Commenting on the fire, Ray Bailey, Managing Director at Harley Facades Limited said:
“This is an incredibly tragic incident.  Our thoughts are with the residents and their families who have suffered such a personal loss.  We will fully support and cooperate with the investigations into this fire.  There will be many questions about this whole incident and so you will appreciate that it would not be appropriate for us to comment or for others to speculate on any aspect of fire or it causes in advance of these inquiries.   At this time, we are not aware of any link between the fire and the exterior cladding to the tower.”

Ventilation Contractor

Apparently ventilation works were carried out. This has a baring on the disaster because the objective is to provide sufficient ventilation in case of fire to at least keep the access/escape stairway free of smoke. I am not party to what work was carried out not how far the ventilation secured this objective. All we have are numerous witness statements to the effect that the common areas and staircase was in fact with smoke and fume. 

Apparently Witt UK was chosen for this part of the refurbishment. On its web site here, which it is claimed was taken down immediately after the event, it states:

"Fan Systems was founded in 1950, and is an acknowledged leader in the manufacture of high quality industrial fans, with units operating across a diverse range of process applications throughout the world.

"Fan Systems became part of the WITT UK Group in 1993, and acquired Alldays Peacock in 2006, adding high pressure blowers and gas boosters to complement its extensive fan range.

"Now operating from an exceptional new site in Yorkshire, and with additional world wide manufacturing capability, Fan Systems Group has one of the most advanced fan production facilities."


  • As a specialist area, the design brief came from where and who approved it?
  • Did the ventilation system work as intended, was the design defective or did it fail in some other manner?

Other specialist firms were employed to deal with the up-grading of electrical and other services inside the block that may have had implications on the way the incident spread and was alarmed but these are not touched on in this article. Readers are also referred to earlier articles on the subject on this blog. 


1.  Extract from:

"Aluminium in a Fire If aluminium is involved in a fire and the temperature rises to above its melting point, the metal begins to melt. The melting point of a metal, like its density, strength, or corrosion resistance, is a characteristic which can be measured and used to design the most effective component for any particular application. The thermal conductivity of aluminium is around four times that of steel and its specific heat twice that of steel. This means that heat is conducted away faster and a greater heat input is necessary to bring the same mass of aluminium to a given temperature, compared with steel. Where an aluminium structure is exposed to the heat of a fire, the relatively high thermal conductivity enables the heat to be rapidly conducted away from the exposed area. This helps to reduce hot spots where significant localised property loss could occur, so extending the serviceability period. It will, however, cause the temperature to rise elsewhere. The extent of dissipation of heat elsewhere in the structure will depend on the degree of thermal insulation provided to the aluminium elsewhere in the structure, necessary to provide fire protection in that area.

Relectivity of aluminium is 80% to 90%, compared with 5% for painted steel and 25% for stainless steel. This is of considerable benefit and will assist in prolonging endurance of an aluminium structure in a fire. The attached photograph is a good example of the behaviour of aluminium in the massive form in a fire. A car, with aluminium alloy wheels, was caught in a forest fire that swept over the car and moved on. Afterwards it was found that the aluminium wheels had melted, molten aluminium had run off and collected in a pool of metal which solidified as the fire moved on and the temperature fell. The aluminium had not burnt. "

"Aluminium alloy components are widely used in building as cladding and roofing materials, windows and doors. As defined by BS 476: Part 4 and the 1974 SOLAS Convention (as amended) aluminium alloys are ‘non-combustible’ and also provide Class 1 surface spread of flame to BS 476: Part 7. In addition, BS 476: Part 3 covers external fire exposure roof tests and the classifications laid down in the standard range from AA to DD. The first letter refers to the fire penetration performance and the second letter to the surface spread of flame. Aluminium and its alloys are rated AA, the highest possible under this classification system. Materials are also tested for fire propagation performance to BS 476: Part 6 (1989) and coating systems are taken into account. Aluminium achieves excellent ratings under this Standard."




Brushed Aluminum Product Basics


Monday, 19 June 2017

Finsbury Park Mosque Attack
Finsbury Park Mosque Terror Attack

A man prays after a vehicle collided with pedestrians near a mosque in the Finsbury Park
A man prays after a vehicle collided with pedestrians near a mosque in the Finsbury Park CREDIT: REUTERS

Just ten minutes after midnight on the morning of 19th June, 2017, a van hired in South Wales and driven by solidly built forty-eight year old man, with a mop of black hair and a moustache, ploughed into worshippers as they were leaving their Ramadan prayers. It is reported that at least one elderly man has died and ten were taken to hospital with injuries. 

This is the latest is a series of three similar attacks in London and Manchester and only five days after the disastrous Grenfell Tower blaze in which upwards of fifty people died. Suspicious circumstances surround all of these incidents with many still to be answered questions over how they occurred and were responded to.

This latest incident seems to share a similar methodology with the Westminster and London Bridge incidents, and several that have taken place on mainland Europe, beginning with Nice in July 2016. However it is different in several respects, not least in how it was responded to by the authorities. It tends to suggest unlike the three previous attacks referred to, there was not an element of pre-planning and expectation on the part of police and other agencies.

For example in both the London bridges incidents, armed officers were immediately on hand to shoot dead the alleged attackers. In the Manchester case, remarkably no less than 60 ambulances were immediately queueing on scene, whilst fire appliances were not summoned for 90 minutes. This tells us something.

In contrast, in this latest case on Seven Sisters Road, first police did not arrive it is claimed for about half an hour, and then just conventional officers. The alleged attacker was arrested only because of prompt local action to overwhelm the man, something that clearly didn't happen in the previous instances.

Then from a Twitter 'tweet' shown below, it appears that the new breed of armed 'terror' police did not arrive for more than three hours! From the policing point of view, there can be little reason for this major contrast in response to superficially similar events, without an explanation of expectation and preparedness.

Police counter terror vans have arrived - cordon being extended 

It is and will be interesting to note how press, media and authorities respond to it. Although Prime Minister, Government Ministers and leading politicians have put out their usual expressions of concern and condolence, we wait to see if it will elicit the same degree of organised empathy and artistic expression.

Already we learn that the alleged attacker was taken to hospital rather than police cell. In addition the police spokesman has seeded the notion of a mental health assessment. Certainly this is a much better fate than was meted out to previous attackers and may be evidence of subtle manipulation of the narrative between this and 'real' 'terrorism'?

Time will tell.

Finally, perhaps we should also flag up an important conflict between claims that at some point there were others in the van that apparently had been parked locally prior to the incident, with the stated view of the police that, "No other suspects at the scene have been identified or reported to police." The certainty this represents at such an early stage is unusual. Note it contains no conjunction, such as a 'but', that might indicate in the light of witness claims, the possibility was still being considered.

Such small details can be indicators of underlying attitude and approach. The official 'playing up' or 'playing down' of 'terror' incidents?

As always, the question is whether this is an isolated incident by an individual, or whether it represents evidence of deeper and darker organisation? 

The Telegraph here 
( reports as follows: 

Emergency services at the scene close to Finsbury Park Mosque
Emergency services at the scene close to Finsbury Park Mosque CREDIT: THOMAS VAN HULLE/TWITTER

"The van driver - described by witnesses as a large white man - was detained by members of the public after the incident in Finsbury Park early on Monday that police said had "all the hallmarks of terrorism".
"The white van ploughed into pedestrians as the area was busy with worshippers attending Ramadan night prayers in Seven Sisters Road at 12.20am.
"Adil Rana, 24, who was outside the mosque when the van drove towards the crowd, saw blood and "people dead on the floor" in the aftermath.
"He said: "The van was driving towards us to try and basically hit us at speed and everyone was shocked and people were screaming. There were people on the floor."
"Mr Rana, from Walthamstow, said the driver was held on the ground by some of the crowd after getting out the vehicle."Metropolitan Police deputy assistant commissioner Neil Basu thanked members of the public for restraining the suspect.
Earlier, the Metropolitan Police said in a statement: "He has been taken to hospital as a precaution and will be taken into custody once discharged. He will also be subject of a mental health assessment in due course."
"Some witnesses said more than one attacker might have been involved, but police said "no other suspects at the scene have been identified or reported to police".
"Mr Abdullahi said the arrested man looked "indifferent" and "like he didn't even care".
"Sami Ali, 20, who had left the mosque just minutes before the attack, claimed the driver of the van was smiling and waving when police took him away, reports Martin Evans.
"He said: "He was smiling and waving when the police took him away."
"Zoheir Cheref, who arrived on the scene around five minutes after the incident, said witnesses claimed the driver said: "I did the job" as he got out of the van, reports Crime Correspondent Martin Evans.
"Witness Ratip al-Sulamein described the driver as a "white guy in his mid 40s". He said: "People grabbed him and he just said 'I done my bit'."
"Mr Ahmed claimed that a total of three men were in the van, but two had escaped. However, police said "no other suspects at the scene have been identified or reported" to the force.

Two images of the accused attacker
The suspect is led into a police van by officers
The suspect is led into a police van by officers CREDIT: SKY NEWS

The suspect is taken away by police in Finsbury Park CREDIT: SKY NEWS

"Abdulrahman Saleh Alamoudi said he was among a group of people helping an elderly worshipper who had fallen down, perhaps because of the heat, when the van swerved towards them.

"Then we managed to get him on the floor. Then he was saying, 'Kill me, kill me'. I said, 'We are not going to kill you. Why did you do that?' He wouldn't say anything."

"He said they had to hold the suspect on the ground for up to half an hour before police arrived.

"The guy, I had to keep him at least half an hour. He was a strong guy. A big man," he said.

Smiling ambulance personnel? Rather inexplicable and inappropriate after a potentially 'terrorist attack'?
A victim is taken away on a stretcher by medics at Finsbury Park CREDIT:  JAMES GOURLEY/REX/SHUTTERSTOCK
A victim is taken away on a stretcher by medics at Finsbury Park

Saturday, 17 June 2017

Grenfell House Fire

A discussion of safety issues in relation to the disastrous Grenfell Housing Tower fire 
by Tim Veater.

Behailu's flat

For my sins, I spent many years involved in issues peripheral and central to the fire tragedy that swept the Kensington and Chelsea block of flats. This included the investigation of a number of fatal incidents including domestic fires but nothing on the scale of the tragedy that unfolded at Grenfell House, a 24 storey block of flats, housing somewhere between 400 and 600 people, of mainly multi-cultural background. 

Amidst the confusion some 30 have been confirmed dead but many more are missing and presumed to have died. The inferno will undoubtedly go down in history as one of the worst social disasters to hit London and Britain. The question on everybodies' minds and demands an answer, both as to cause and consequences is, "was it inevitable or preventable?" and of course "what and whom are chiefly to blame?"

Contrast between Media Treatment and Reality.

The first thing I would like to flag up is the contrast between the treatment by press and media and the reality. Can we avoid the conclusion, although we the public rely on the former for the facts, the information industry treats such incidents with alacrity, for whom it affords excitement and spectacle.   

The reality of the event, physically, sensually and emotionally is never adequately represented. The sight and smell of a burnt out dwelling is hard to describe or replicate, as is the emotional devastation of losing a loved one or seeing desperate people one cannot help, consigned to fate. 

There is also the contrast, highlighted by those interviewed, between the interest shown by the media to the disaster, whilst totally ignoring all the pleas for help when prior to it, concerns were being expressed. 

The media comes to the event with its own agenda to produce dramatic images and emotional scenes, but studious avoids real analysis and penetrating insight. Interviewers such as Jon Snow and Victoria Derbyshire to name but two, are seen apparently trying to moderate and direct irate opinion, and this is only what we see broadcast. The role of the editor and what he rejects, is of course never revealed.

Political Ramifications

Whatever the truth of the assertion above, there is no doubt that the political ramifications of the tragedy are already apparent, and particularly the contrast of approach by the two political party leaders, and only recent contestants, Theresa May and Jeremy Corbyn. Fresh from her disastrous election campaign, in which she came over as emotionally remote, uncommunicative even with her own ministers, afraid of confrontation and vacillating, she appeared to have learnt nothing in dealing with the Grenfell disaster. In stark contrast, Jeremy Corbyn who, who went out to meet those affected, and was even photographed with a comforting arm around them. By his demonstrated empathy, he has etched his "for the many not the few" and a "kinder sort of government" in the hearts of a sizable proportion of the electorate and far more than just a slogan.

We may ask who is advising Theresa May now that two of her most important jumped ship before they were pushed? Has she, or they, learnt nothing about the important of image to message? We are told the reason she met none of the directly affected was to do with "security concerns." So the Prime Minister, with all the security assistance at her disposal is afraid of meeting ordinary people in the smartest part of London? Hardly Churchill climbing over the Blitz devastation in the East End is it? It may well prove to be the final nail in her reputational political coffin.

Investigating Disasters

In any fire, in fact in any serious incident, it may be stating the obvious to point out there are two basic areas of examination: how it started and what happened thereafter? In both instances it is necessary to investigate the historical causes that involve both human and technical factors. So applying this framework, what do we know about how this disaster occurred and why did so many perish?

What Happened at Grenfell?

We are told that the blaze started from a relatively small fire in just one fourth floor flat and that it subsequently spread to recently installed external cladding that patently was not flame retardant and thence back into all the apartments affected. 

Even were this the case, there is still the question why people did not access the one escape route that should have remained protected from fire and smoke in the flats? It is significant that those that did, survived. Many of those that did not leave their accommodation, in accordance with the standing instructions, perished.

The Source of the Fire

Apparently the fire started with an exploding refrigerator. Investigators will want to know how this happened but if true, it is likely that it followed previously reported cases, in which the 'green' replacement highly flammable refrigerants isobutane and propane are employed.

If these leak, any spark, as for example when the thermostat or light cuts in, the flammable gas can be ignited. In 2009, Samsung recalled thousands of such appliances following coolant explosions. (2) This would normally only cause structural damage but fire could also result. We do not know, but it is possible that if this happened, the window was also blown out allowing fire to escape and involve the exterior cladding.

Mr Behailu Kebede

The person involved has been identified as 44 year old taxi driver, Behailu Kebede originally from Ethiopia. It is reported that just before 1.00 am he raised the alarm to his neighbour. The alarm was raised with emergency services at 12.54 am. Firemen were at the scene within six minutes but were faced with an almost impossible situation with large segments of the exterior facade alight and blazing fiercely.

We do not know precisely the time of the explosion but we must assume Mr Kebede reacted immediately to the danger but there are rather disturbing reports that he was able to pack a suitcase before leaving. The Sun reported as follows (3):

His next-door neighbour Maryann Adam, 41, said: “He knocked on the door and he said there was a fire in his flat.
“It was exactly 12.50am because I was sleeping and it woke me up. When we got up, I saw his luggage outside his flat, there was a big bag with his clothes.
“The fire was small in the kitchen. I could see it because the door was open. There was no alarm.”
Fire crews were alerted at 12.54am and arrived within six minutes but found the inferno had spread outside the building, roaring towards the 24th floor.

Apparently, and to be expected, Mr Kebede is distraught that by no fault of his own, a fire that started in his apartment spread so quickly and disastrously to the rest of the building. We must assume that he quickly grabbed his belongings before leaving and put them in an hold-all - but of course if preparations were already made for leaving, issues are raised that should be answered particularly in relation to the time that elapsed between 'explosion' and leaving the flat.

Fire Alarms

The next issue raised by this account relates to alarms and any attempt to fight the fire initially. It would appear in both instances the answer is in the negative. 

The block is apparently provided with no general fire alarm system on the basis that fire could always be contained within the respective flat and that a greater danger would be created if people attempted to leave en-mass, particularly in case of false alarm, a major problem in such installations.

However the absence of any alarm sounding is more problematic, as every flat should be fitted with both hard wired heat and smoke alarms, particularly as it had a major refurbishment only a year before. So why did this not operate at least in the flat affected?

The critical question is therefore:
  • What alarm systems were in place, were they adequate and did they operate in accordance with their design parameters?

Would it have made any difference if it had is a secondary question? As the explosion had, or would have awoken the resident anyway, it is probably an academic question in this instance but of course more generally it can save life if people are asleep. Whether it can assist in alerting other flat occupants depends on whether it can be heard. Even if it can be, there is still the psychological factor. People are notoriously reticent to react to alarms unless fully advised as to context.

Fire Fighting Equipment and Competence

Then as far as fighting the fire initially, this appears not to have happened and the question is "why?" If as the neighbour states it was relatively small when she saw it, prompt initial treatment with a dry powder or CO2 extinguisher may well have put the fire out. Such action can prevent much worse consequences but it depends on two things: 1. the appliances with which to do it; and 2. the knowledge and skill of how to do it. 

Historically such premises have been provided with extinguishers, either to the flats or common parts, or both, that can be effective in this regard. 

I have personal knowledge of how Housing providers can view this provision as costly and inconvenient, as they have to be checked and maintained, and seek to remove them. The safety case for their provision may not always win out over economic ones. 

The pertinent questions therefore are: 

  • What provision was made for fighting fire in the flats by way of fire extinguishers either in the flats or common parts and were they adequate? 
  • Were any attempts made to fight the fire initially at source and if not why not? 
  • What steps had been taken to instruct and train tenants in fire procedures including how to use appliances and when they should vacate the building?

Fire Protected Stairwell

As can be seen from the above diagram, in the centre of the block there is a fire protected stairwell and lift shaft. 

At least one self closing fire door providing at least half an hour fire resistance should be provided between flat and this protected staircase. In fact in a refurbished flat I would expect two such. 

So it is with some concern that I note the witness reported she could "see inside the flat".

Was the door self closer disconnected, not working properly or was the door propped open? Any of these would raise a major threat of smoke and heat entering the stairwell and compromising its function as a fire, heat and smoke-free escape route. 

  • The question to be answered is how many fire doors are there between flats and stairwell and did they all comply with standard recommendations?

  • Further, why in this particular case was the main door open with its serious consequences to the integrity of the safe escape route?

  • Was the fire source flat door ever closed?

The Lift and Stairwell.

Although the lift should not be used in case of fire, the stairs should provide a safe route for orderly evacuation where required. As soon as occupants became aware of fire outside their windows, they should have, without delay, made their way to and down the stairwell. 

  • The reasons why some did and some did not needs to be investigated. 

Standing Response to Fire Advice

One cannot escape the conclusion that at least in part this may have been influenced by the standing advice to remain in the flat which in many cases was a fatal choice. 

  • This advice needs to be revisited - certainly in relation to any other block where similar cladding has been applied.

Emergency Lighting

Now as regards lighting, any fire alarm or interruption in power should operate emergency lighting in the common areas as an obvious safety precaution. If people endeavour to leave by this route in haste they need to be able to see. The reports indicate this did not happen and people had to feel their way in darkness. It is reported that at least one child was lost as a consequence. So the question is:

  • Was there a system of emergency lighting meeting current standards and did it operate as designed in this instance?

Current Relevant Legislation.

The current relevant legislation (4) requires every location/business operation where staff are employed to have a current fire risk assessment specifying all the technical and management steps that need to be taken to reduce risk of fire and its consequences. 

Apparently there have been numerous formal complaints to the management body regarding these matters with little practical result. 

So the question is, did the Housing Association fulfill its legal and ethical responsibilities in this regard? 

It should be noted that the Health and Safety Act allows for criminal prosecution of individuals and directors in appropriate cases.

(Hopefully I will discuss the important issue of the external cladding and various other issues in a further article.)