An investigation by Channel 4’s Dispatches. Grenfell: Did The Fire Brigade Fail? Monday 18 February, 8pm) reveals:
- Up to 55 people who died in the Grenfell fire tragedy were subject to advice to stay put in the building after the fire was raging out of control.
- A breakdown in communication between firefighters on the ground and call centre operatives dealing with 999 calls from residents.
- Claims that firefighters have been given insufficient training given about mass evacuating entire residential towers, despite recommendations from a Coroner following a previous high-rise fire.
- Claims from one anonymous firefighter that the LFB leadership relied on a narrative about the Grenfell fire being unprecedented in order to avoid questions about the organisation not learning lessons and instigating appropriate training as directed by the Coroner in relation to the previous high rise fire.
The programme has meticulously cross-checked information from 999 calls with evidence from the Grenfell Inquiry to reveal that up to 55 of those who died were subject to advice from the LFB to stay in the burning building and wait to be rescued. Control room staff were under instructions to tell them to remain, as it was believed this was the safest thing to do at the time, until the advice changed to self-evacuate some time after 2.30am. The Inquiry has heard that the whole tower could have been evacuated in seven minutes, if this had been carried out earlier on.
Recognising that individual firefighters worked tirelessly and heroically to save lives and many have no doubt suffering lasting effects, Dispatches does not criticise individual officers, but rather examines whether the LFB’s systems and procedures let both residents and firefighters down.
One survivor, Marcio Gomes who was trapped on the 21st Floor, tells Dispatches: “If I was standing on the outside looking out of this fourth-floor fire and within 15 or I think 20 minutes’ max it’s already reached the top. That already tells me get everyone out. There is no way we are saving this building, but we can save the lives and that should have been the priority. Everybody out.”
Mr Gomes eventually took the decision to self-evacuate his family, including his heavily pregnant wife, despite being told that he would be rescued by fire brigade officers. He suffered the tragic loss of his son who was stillborn as a result.
Following six deaths at a previous fire in a block of flats - Lakanal House in 2009 - the Coroner made explicit recommendations that the LFB should retrain incident commanders to anticipate compartment failure (where a fire is not contained within one apartment but spreads through the building) and the risks of unexpected fire spread. However, LFB decided its existing training was sufficient.
But speaking anonymously to Dispatches, one firefighter claims there is insufficient training given about evacuating entire buildings: “There is one line in one of the policies I believe that says consider mass evacuation. But there is no guidance on how to do it. Michael Dowden [Incident Commander on the night] didn’t have the toolkit to tackle that fire. He didn’t have the policies to say ‘right, no that’s it, I’ve lost this, get everyone out of the building’. How on Earth were we put in that position?”
Giving evidence to the Inquiry, London Fire Commissioner Dany Cotton said: “We learn from every operational incident but in the same manner that I wouldn’t develop a training package for a space shuttle to land on the Shard, we would respond to it and deal with it in the same responsible manner that we do to an incident of that scale. So I wouldn’t expect us to be developing training or a response to something that simply shouldn’t happen.”
Reacting to her statement, the firefighter tells Dispatches: “It really annoyed me straight afterwards because everyone was … ‘this fire is unprecedented’. We had a lot of that. I think that’s [the] narrative that they want you to think because that kind of suggests that no one’s responsible. But the warning signs were there. We could have learnt these lessons. The stuff that the Coroner recommended from Lakanal House would have given Michael the tools he needed to recognise that that building was not acting how it should have acted. We could see this coming.”
Dispatches also highlights how the LFB’s specialist call centre operators, who were dealing with 999 calls from residents had no specialist link of any kind to the fire and weren’t being informed about its progress by those at the tower. Consequently, they continued to tell residents that the fire was only on the fourth floor and to stay put, despite callers telling them repeatedly that the fire had already spread to upper floors of the tower.
In a statement to Dispatches, the London Fire Brigade said:
“Our thoughts are with the Grenfell community. It’s essential to understand what happened on the night. We are listening, we are learning and already making changes. We all need to learn about the cause and response to the fire to prevent such an incident happening again. We strongly believe drawing conclusions before the public inquiry, police investigation and our own investigation, could be prejudicial, which is why we could not take part in this programme. Our staff acted on what they faced that night and not on what we have learnt subsequently about why and how the fire spread with such devastating consequences."