This terrible incident happened in June 2017 where a fire spread from one apartment in a high 24-storey tower block in London, to affect the rest of the block and end in numerous deaths and injuries. Simply horrendous to see, and worrying to contemplate as the story unfolds about what not only caused this, but why the fire spread so seriously throughout the whole property.
There are already countless reports of this through the news and investigations, with a focus on looking at similar tower blocks for potentially dangerous materials like external cladding, in addition to a continued investigations into the site and situation. The technicalities will continue to unfold, which will hopefully lead to people being accountable for any mistakes and clear action being taken to prevent such consequences like this again.
The 3 Areas of Concern
From a property management perspective, we want to take a step back and look at three different angles to this situation (check out general fire issues at properties here
). Although details will evolve and other properties must be taken on a case-by-case basis, these are 3 core factors to consider in any similar situation, not only in large communal residential tower blocks but other types and forms of properties.
We simply must learn from this, and help make sure the right fire-prevention works and procedures are in place that people can actually use and apply, without this turning into a tick-box exercise where people can become complacent.
1. The Main Building Construction
This is currently the focus of the Grenfell Tower incident, and the fact that the fire spread so quickly and easily throughout the whole property. The type of external cladding and insulation behind it is the priority, and whether the incorrect non-fire-compliant material was in use.
But there’s other construction matters being considered as well such as the way in which fire spread throughout the main stairwell and the smoke-ventilation system not coping with fire and smoke coming in from outside, and whether sprinklers should have been provided.
In addition, physically stopping fire-spread is key, from making sure that fire doors were correctly closed and resistant, and fire-stopping measures so there are no gaps left anywhere in the building to help smoke spread.
The important aspect to realise here is that it needs the proper technical input - no shortcuts please. This will range from architects and engineers, to fire risk assessors and consultants. Their job is to get this right, right down to the detail of what type of insulation is best, and the correct calculations of potential fire spread and wind circulation.
Now saying that, what can help is some often common-sense input from those at grass-roots level, so to speak, so a good contractor or property manager. Without being engrossed in construction detail, they can often see the wood for the trees and help at least ask the right questions, for example whether such and such a solution is now applicable in a different situation.
But there are limits to this, and the right person has to make the decision and then check that the actual works are satisfactory. This is particularly important when you’re dramatically changing properties, so with Grenfell it had been a case of major refurbishment of a basic public housing tower block.
So make sure this all happens; that the right advisors and suppliers are first instructed, and that there is good communication between all parties, and then making sure that works are completed correctly and signed-off properly.
2. The Individual Occupied Areas
The actual use of the property is fundamental, as this is often the unfortunate cause of any fire, as in this instance of a fridge at Grenfall.
It’s therefore imperative that these are all correctly used, whether that’s only having compliant and PAT-tested electrical apparatus, keeping combustible materials away and fire escape routes clear, or the right number of occupiers in.
Each occupier will need to take responsibility for their own area, and if they have re-let to someone else then they need to check that the new tenants are likewise doing so correctly, important with any more informal arrangements, such as through AirBnB.
You also need to make sure all the areas are accounted for, so with a block of flats checking any vacant dwellings, and remembering all communal areas and storage points through the landlord or managing agent.
A final point as well on this, is that it’s all about being reasonable and having the right checks in place, rather than a mad frantic panic. Unfortunately, you’ll never completely stop any mistakes leading to fires, but as long as you’ve done what you can and satisfactory building procedures are in place than any fire shoulder be self-contained and then easily dealt with.
3. The Overall Fire Strategy & Procedures
So you have the right property features in place, and each occupied area is being used and checked. The essential stage now is tying all this together in one overall fire procedure, which may sound grand and complicated, but basically boils down to people actually knowing what’s there and what to do.
This must end in documentation like a Fire Strategy for larger and more complicated properties, and documents like the Fire Evacuation Procedure to explain how people vacate the property in the event of a fire. There is a host of information available on this, one of the most important in this situation being the Local Government Association’s ‘Fire safety in purpose built blocks of flats’.
In addition to documents being sent to people to read and understand, notices should be around the property with short and sweet instructions, copies in places like notice boards and website systems, and records of practicing any fire drills and fire assembly points needed.
Whatever form this takes, not only make sure it is correct, but then effectively communicated to people as this must all boil down to clear action. This was actually one of the first concerns from the Grenfell incident, where residents had concerns over inadequate information and notices to explain to people what to do, and even though the 'Stay Put' policy is the norm for this type of residential block there are investigations into why the fire service did not communicate full evacuation when the severity of the incident was known.
Taking this a stage further, there are often two key issues that everyone needs to understand for that particular property and situation.
Firstly, what to do when they hear a fire alarm or see fire or smoke. In the majority of cases this means someone needing to call 999 as soon as possible to ask the fire brigade to attend the property. Even though a fire alarm may be blaring away, this is primarily to tell people to get out of the property and doesn’t tell the fire brigade to attend.
However, a fire alarm could also be linked to a remote monitoring station who will send someone to site or call people to try and identify if this is a real incident in order to call the brigade, but even then every minute counts and if people know there’s a real fire then you need to make sure people know to call 999 straight away.
And secondly, ensuring people then know what to do when they hear the alarm or see a real fire. Instinctively they will want to literally leave the property ASAP and keep away from the building, which in a lot of cases may well be the required course of action. But with residential properties in particular, there is often now a Stay Put policy where people actually need to stay where they are unless the fire is within their own area or they are in the communal area.
This does sound illogical, but the theory is to stop panic, and once the fire brigade attend site they can soon rescue people. With the correct compartmentalisation and insulation residents should be safe from the effects of fire for often 30 to 60 minutes, however the reality of people actually realising and then doing this is another thing.
Taking Property Fire Prevention Seriously
We have a separate detailed overview here of all kinds of fire prevention factors and issues to consider with properties, and with this particular situation of Grenfell Tower still in everyone’s memory, let’s make sure we learn some real-life principles to help in future.
So begin with the basic construction, and make sure it’s kitted-out as it should be in order to help prevent and manage fire incidents. This is particularly important where there are unusual and older properties, and where serious works and refurbishment is taking place to keep in line with current regulations.
Then look at the individual occupied areas, whether a small residential flat or a large commercial business, and make sure the people responsible for them are well versed to likewise deal with fire issues. This ranges from the right and validated fit-out and items, through to their own systems and communication.
Finally, ensure there is the right fire procedures in place to tie all this together. This shouldn’t be just a pile of paperwork for people to keep on their shelves collecting dust, but clear documentation of the right systems just for that property and scenario, and ensuring that people actually know what to do in the event of a real fire, right down to who to call and where to go.
Therefore let’s not give up on this, as there’s too much at stake.