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Pre-planning and fire safety advocacy: The legacy of the Grenfell Tower fire

Tragic fires continue to affect building codes and fire safety, sprinkler, fire inspections regulations


The burnt Grenfell Tower apartment building standing testament to the recent fire in London.

AP Photo/Frank Augstein

I recently spent several days in London. No matter where I went, or what television channel I watched, the Grenfell Tower fire – which resulted in at least 80 deaths and approximately the same number of injuries – was and continues to be in the headline news on a daily basis.

The June 14 fire is still in the investigative stages with the Metropolitan Police serving as the lead agency supported by expertise on cause and origin from the London Fire Brigade. The news reported that this investigation will review the roles of nearly 60 businesses or governmental agencies with dealings regarding the Tower. Obviously, this ongoing investigation will take some time to conclude, but already the Metropolitan Police indicated they were approaching this case to gather evidence for potentially both criminal charges (perhaps as serious as corporate manslaughter), as well as for use in the growing list of civil litigations that have been or will be filed on behalf of the victims and tenants.

Prior to my travels, I knew that fire officials were prohibited from directly commenting on any aspect of the fire or investigation other than the official press releases, but not from clarifying those releases with some permissible background information.

Residents trapped and unreachable in the Grenfell Tower

Shortly after midnight on June 14, 2017, a small fire began in a flat on the fourth floor of the 24-story Grenfell Tower initially built in 1970 and renovated in 2016. The building is owned by the Kensington-Chelsea Council of Government, and managed by the Kensington-Chelsea Housing Authority. The tenants were primarily lower income families, many of whom were either immigrants or citizens from other member countries of the Commonwealth.

While it is reported that individual smoke alarms were present in each flat, the building lacked fire sprinklers or a central fire alarm system. Instructions to the tenants indicated that if a fire originated in their flat, they should immediately evacuate, but if it was in another flat, that they should shelter in place.

One factor that may have lessened the death toll was that June 14 was also the end of Ramadan and many of the building’s occupants were still up to celebrate the traditional ceremonial breakfast that marked the end of these Muslim holy days.

The London Fire Brigade arrived to the original report of a fire within 6 minutes of their dispatch. Firefighters thought they had quickly extinguished the initial fire believed to have been caused by a refrigerator/freezer, only to learn that the fire had somehow extended through to the exterior of the building, which included a polyethylene insulation core sandwiched between the concrete walls and an aluminum exterior cladding referred to in United Kingdom building trades as a “rain-screen.”

This exterior fire quickly spread upwards, engulfing all the floors in its path and trapping hundreds of tenants in the upper floors. The polyethylene and aluminum burned bright orange for hours, with several LFB aerial devices trying to play water on the exterior. Meanwhile, firefighters attempted a floor-by-floor search for trapped residents, rescuing at least 65 people, but also hearing the screams of those trapped and unreachable. Masses of molten polyethylene and aluminum regularly rained down onto the streets below before the fire was brought under control nearly 24 hours later.

UK LFB employs drones to search for victims

For several days, it was feared that the building might be unstable to enter, so the LFB employed drones to try to locate the bodies of the victims. Once engineers assessed the damage and the potential for collapse was eased, a floor-by-floor search for victims and their removal began.

Another difficulty was trying to obtain an accurate number of tenants that had been in the building at the time of the fire. There were an unknown number of extended families living in single flats, and in some cases, it was reported that tenants had moved out and sub-let their flats

Building codes and sprinkler requirements change in wake of high-rise fires

Following a similar high-rise fire at the Lakanal House in London that killed six tenants in 2009, the UK passed regulations requiring sprinklers, standpipes and alarm systems in all new high rise construction.

While these fire safety improvements were strongly recommended for existing structures being renovated, they were not required. During the renovation of the Grenfell Tower completed in 2016, it has been reported that a bid was received for fire sprinklers at a cost of approximately 1,200 British pounds per flat, or about 200,000 British pounds for the entire structure.

The Kensington-Chelsea Housing Authority apparently thought the cost excessive, and that it would have extended the renovation period longer than was reasonable for the tenants to endure. After the fire, a statement that fire sprinklers would not have stopped the external spread of the fire was used in defense of the decision not to install sprinklers. While that may have been true, the idea of protecting escape routes for tenants apparently never entered into the decision.

The use of polyethylene foam is also being defended by some. Builders claim an independent testing company in the United Kingdom, BRE, tested the foam and found its qualities in flame spread are similar to other more costly fire resistant foams, but a police official involved in the ongoing investigation indicated to the news media that preliminary tests run for the Metropolitan Police found that the polyethylene insulation used in the Grenfell Tower caught fire soon after the ignition of the test fires.

Recently, the use of external sprinklers on buildings using polyethylene insulation has been mandated in countries such as Dubai following the 2015 Torch Tower fire, which experienced a second fire in early August.

While I was in London, another news report indicated that at least three of the fire survivors had been treated for cyanide poisoning in London area hospitals. Obviously, even if the flammability tests are deemed inconclusive, there is rather little doubt of the toxicity associated with most foams, including polyethylene.

At least 11 other high-rise structures in the greater London area have been identified with polyethylene foam sandwiched between concrete walls and an aluminum clad exterior. Several housing authorities that also used polyethylene in their renovations have removed tenants from their high rise structures and found alternative housing for them.

Learn from catastrophic fires

The history of fire and life safety in the United States throughout the 20th and 21st centuries is marred by many catastrophic fires:

As well as high-rise fires, such as:

From each of these tragedies have come stronger regulations for fire safety and inspections, making buildings and their occupants incrementally safer. We can only hope that the same will be true for our fire service brothers and sisters in the United Kingdom.

Don’t wait for such a tragic fire to strike your community. Inspections, enforcement and pre-planning can greatly add to the safety of citizens and firefighters alike, and pay dividends for fire departments, including yours.

Stay safe!

Chief Robert R. Rielage, CFO, EFO, FIFireE, is the former Ohio fire marshal and has been a chief officer in several departments for more than 30 years. A graduate of the Kennedy School’s Program for Senior Executives in State and Local Government at Harvard University, Rielage holds a master’s degree in public administration from Norwich University and is a past-president of the Institution of Fire Engineers – USA Branch. He has served as a subject-matter expert, program coordinator and evaluator, and representative working with national-level organizations, such as FEMA, the USFA and the National Fire Academy. Rielage served as a committee member for NFPA 1250 and NFPA 1201. In 2019, he received the Ohio Fire Service Distinguished Service Award. Rielage is currently working on two books – “On Fire Service Leadership” and “A Practical Guide for Families Dealing with a Fire or Police LODD.” Connect with Rielage via email.