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London fire harbinger of looming challenge for fire departments

Preventing high-rise mass fatality fires is more likely to happen through the prevention side of the house, not the response side


On June 14, 2017 a significant fire spread through Grenfell Tower, a 24-story residential high-rise in London. Despite the heroic efforts of the London Fire Brigade, many lives were lost in this dramatic fast-spreading fire. Officials now report 79 people presumed dead.

While the precise cause of the fire is still under investigation, early indications suggest that exterior aluminum cladding may have contributed to the fire spread.

Why the Grenfell Tower fire is significant

Though even a single life lost to fire is saddening, life loss at this scale is beyond words.  

A firefighter puts his hand to his face as he looks at the floral tributes before a minute's silence near to Grenfell Tower. (Dominic Lipinski/PA via AP)
A firefighter puts his hand to his face as he looks at the floral tributes before a minute's silence near to Grenfell Tower. (Dominic Lipinski/PA via AP)

The 20th century saw the rise in the importance of fire safety codes, typically in reaction to tragic fires, like the Cocoanut Grove nightclub fire, with large life losses. However, as the century moved to a close, three critically important factors have combined to again increase the risk of large life loss to fire.

1. Increasing urban population

Large segments of populations are moving into already dense urban cores. This migration forces the need to build larger structures, often vertically, and always more cheaply. Dense arrangements of people are a necessary precursor for disaster.

2. Changing built environment

Concurrent changes in the built environment, including the use of non-traditional building methods and engineered materials have created new paradigms for fire development and fire spread. While construction materials and methods alone are unlikely to be the root cause of tragic fires, they likely contribute to the tragedy by subverting the sanctity of compartmentalized interior spaces.

3. Cutting funding for emergency services

Compounding the impact of the first two factors is the continued financial struggle faced by most fire service organizations. Cash-strapped local governments are forced to make difficult choices and often find themselves cutting emergency service budgets just as the risk of large scale fire disasters grows.

Unfortunately, the Grenfell Tower fire may be a harbinger of the next great series of challenges for the fire service in the 21st century.

Top takeaways

There will be much to learn from the Grenfell Tower fire investigation, including the accounts from the firefighters and fire officers who responded. Here are three early top takeaways based on the information available now.

1. Redouble prevention efforts

Fire service leaders must redouble their efforts at preventing these tragedies on the front-end, working with builders and local government officials to develop standards and codes that sufficiently address the challenges of large vertical residential structures. Building codes should place a higher emphasis on not only preventing the ignition of exterior surfaces, but in creating new methods of both active and passive fire protection.

2. Increase research of fire spread in building systems

Fire service leaders must push for scientific research into building components not as standalone items, but rather as integrated systems. How an aluminum cladding panel behaves in a furnace fire test provides little insight into how the cladding system restricts or contributes to fire spread as part of a building system.

3. Improve citizen response, action

Finally, fire service leaders and fire educators must push for additional research into the various social and psychological factors surrounding how people are best notified of fires and how they typically react. Once the fire begins, most fire departments are fighting a losing battle. The people who live or work inside the building must be empowered to save themselves.

Any fire department responding to a fire like the one at Grenfell Tower will be immediately overwhelmed. If there is any hope of preventing future deaths, then it will likely be found on the prevention side of the house, not the response side.

Learn more about high-rise building fires

A high-rise fire is complex and dangerous. Learn more about the challenges, train for the structures in your response area and find opportunities to speak with the public, elected officials and policy makers about the dangers of and response to a high-rise fire. Learn more with these articles from FireRescue1.

About the author

Charles Bailey is a career Battalion Chief in Md. with nearly 20 years of active service. His hope it that firefighters everywhere will begin to ask hard questions about their operational behaviors and obligations to society using sound science mixed with common sense. Charles won the award for Best Web Column/Trade at the Western Publishing Association’s 2011 Maggie Awards, which honor the best print publications and websites in the Western United States. You can contact Charles with feedback at Charles.Bailey@FireRescue1.com.

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