The Grenfell Tower fire tragedy: 5 years later
As inquiries continue in the United Kingdom, issues of housing equity and inclusion persist there and stateside
June 14 marks the fifth anniversary of the Grenfell Tower fire, one of the most destructive fires in the past decade. Beyond the somber reflections on the tragedy, this anniversary is particularly disappointing because several of the official inquiries are not yet resolved.
The Grenfell Tower fire: A brief review
Shortly after midnight on June 14, 2017, a small fire began in a London flat on the fourth floor of the 24-story Grenfell Tower.
Some quick facts about the Tower:
- The tower was built in 1970 and renovated in 2016 by its owner, the Kensington-Chelsea Council of Government, and managed by the Kensington-Chelsea Housing Authority.
- At the time of the fire, the tenants were primarily lower-income families, many of whom were immigrants or citizens of other member countries of the Commonwealth.
- It was reported that smoke detectors were present in each flat, but this high-rise building lacked both a fire sprinkler system and a central fire alarm.
- While the building had elevators, it also had a central, unprotected stairwell that ran from street level to the top floor.
The London Fire Brigade (LFB) responded within six minutes of the call and thought they had quickly extinguished the fire, which was believed to have been caused by refrigerator/freezer. However, unknown to firefighters at the time, the fire had extended to the exterior of the building, which included a polyethylene insulation core, sandwiched between the concrete walls and an aluminum exterior cladding used as a rain screen that had been installed during the 2016 renovation to help insulate the building. The polyethylene and aluminum exterior was a deadly combination.
The exterior fire quickly spread upward, engulfing the upper floors from the outside and trapping hundreds of tenants inside. As firefighters attempted to search and rescue trapped tenants, masses of molten polyethylene, burning bright orange, and molten aluminum rained down onto the streets below.
Members of the LFB rescued 225 of the reported 295 occupants in the building at the time of the fire. Despite these valiant efforts, 72 people perished and approximately 70 other tenants were injured.
The fire took approximately 24 hours to bring under control and days to extinguish.
As with any major calamity, there is a universal cry that, “This is unacceptable, someone should do something!” In this instance, several official inquiries were started. These ranged from an investigation by the Metropolitan Police Authority on possible criminal charges to the civil liability of the building owners, the Kensington-Chelsea Council of Government, and even to the renovation contractors, architects or engineers superintending the renovations. In addition, the Home Secretary called for an independent review of building regulations and fire safety with an emphasis on high-rise, high-risk residential structures.
Five years later, these inquiries continue, with only a Phase 1 interim report completed in October 2019 to show some progress in any of these safety areas. No one individual or organization has yet to be held responsible for the flammability of the polyethylene insulation used in the renovations.
Early into the inquiries, some criticized the fire brigades shelter-in-place strategy for occupants in a high-rise fire, and compared the Grenfell fire to a 2009 fire in the Lakanal House, a 14-story residential building in the Southward area of London, where six residents perished.
In addition to the confusion regarding shelter in place, the 2019 interim report also found fault with the LFB’s Incident Command System, citing a lack of Unified Command among the fire, police and ambulance agencies. The report recommendations included a better, more compatible radio system and information-sharing among these agencies. It also questioned the ability of the LFB Control Room (similar to a 9-1-1 center) to pass along vital information from tenants needing assistance to the Command personnel and, subsequently, to fire crews on the scene. Additionally, the Phase 1 report indicated a need to have clearly marked floor-level markers and fire safety evacuation information at each floor lobby and in the stairwell landings of high-rise structures.
Phase 2, which was designed to investigate the specific building conditions of the Grenfell Tower at the time of the fire for purpose of making recommendations across the United Kingdom, has yet to be completed.
Further studies regarding any needed reforms in the building trades, such as the universal certification of fire protection engineers and fire testing standards, is also yet to be completed.
Who pays for safety upgrades?
One of the ongoing debates related to the Grenfell Tower tragedy appears to have been recently resolved. As late as December 2021, the Guardian newspaper reported on the issue of who would pay for the removal of similar combustible polyethylene and aluminum clad siding from literally hundreds of building throughout the United Kingdom. Building owners wanted tenants to contribute to this removal and upgrades, while tenants baulked at the idea.
The central government of the United Kingdom announced a plan for a multi-billion-pound intervention to remove this unsafe cladding from buildings across the country. While this is a good first step, it will take years to achieve the goal of ridding buildings of the polyethylene foam insulation. I read an account in the Guardian about a tenant, still living in a building with similar cladding to that of the Grenfell Tower, who panics every time his building’s fire alarm sounds.
Issues of housing equity and inclusion
As the official inquiries in the United Kingdom grind on, hopefully to some significant conclusions, we in the United States really have no basis to criticize their lack of progress. After all, while we might wonder how a tragedy such as the Grenfell Tower could ever occur, two fires that occurred in public housing this year highlight our own issues.
On Jan. 5, 2022, 12 people, including several children, died at a fire in a three-story residential building in Philadelphia. Responding firefighters found overcrowding conditions in the building, with 18 adults and children occupying four bedrooms. Within weeks of the tragedy, Fire Commissioner Adam Thiel said fire prevention measures such as installing more smoke alarms and retrofitting homes with sprinkler systems are important steps to reducing deaths and injuries, but “equity is a really important component of this,” calling on policymakers to focus on the “root causes” of such blazes – a dearth of safe, affordable housing.
Four days later, on Jan. 9, 17 people died and another 44 were transported to area hospitals when fire tore through a 19-story residential structure in the Bronx. This fire, believed to have started by a space heater, allowed smoke, heat and fire to spread throughout the stairwells to the upper floors when automatic door closures failed to operate. Tenants also reported that many of the building’s smoke alarms failed to operate.
Following these tragic January fires, U.S. Fire Administrator Dr. Lori Moore-Merrell voiced a similar opinion to Commissioner Thiel, explaining that these fires not only required a community risk reduction (CRR) response from the fire service, but also one that championed housing equity, whether in public or private housing facilities. She reportedly echoed a similar message during the recent Vision 2020 conference in Nashville this March.
Whether speaking of the Grenfell Tower, Philadelphia or the Bronx fire, the issues of housing equity and inclusion are clear. In many areas with public housing, a single apartment may house members of several families trying economize to make ends meet. Occupants could also be newly placed immigrants, who may not speak or understand English, therefore minimizing the effectiveness of our safety messages, signs, symbols and posted regulations. Add to that an already stretched fire service with a limited number of qualified fire inspectors and CRR personnel, and the problem only becomes more apparent.
Housing equity and inclusion goes beyond the physical conditions of the structure itself. It speaks as well to the preparedness of the occupants to recognize, evaluate and properly act in a fire. For example, a few years ago, my department responded to a well-involved kitchen fire in a single-family dwelling. The family, originally from country in central Africa, still adhered to some of the culture of their former country, which only allowed adult males to make major decisions. A teenager daughter was cooking the family dinner while babysitting a younger sister. When a kitchen fire ignited, the teenager did not believe she could make a decision like calling 911 on her own. Instead, she called her mother at work. The mother in turn called the father, who left his work, picked up his wife and drove back to their home. Fortunately, in the meantime, a neighbor saw smoke coming from the house, alerted the fire department to both the fire and the girls still in the home. By the time the parents arrived, we had the fire contained and their daughters safely outside on the front lawn. It was our first introduction to the cultural issues we faced with residents immigrating to our jurisdiction.
In our community that has seen an influx of several recent groups of immigrants from Somalia, Bhutan, Nepal and Latin America, our fire department is working with both faith-based partners and private organizations to bring our CRR messages to all members of our communities, new and old. We are in the process of having several sets of the USFA’s Fire and Life Safety pictographs translated into several languages as we attend as guests at social gatherings with these residents.
While that is not an easy task, especially in light of several language barriers, it is part of what we should do as firefighters. Remembering Grenfell, Philadelphia and the Bronx should be enough to convince us all.