Were the fire officers at Lakanal House risk averse?

It’s hard to believe that two years down the line there are still no answers to the Lakanal House disaster, in Camberwell, South London.

As a senior officer in the London Fire Brigade (LFB) I was involved in an investigation into a serious fire, in the East End of London, where two fire-fighters tragically lost their lives.  This involved internal procedures that had gone very wrong but it only took us three months to arrive at a point where improvement notices could be served on the LFB, by the Health and Safety Executive (HSE), ostensibly to make the changes needed to prevent a similar outcome.

Now, here’s an aspect that many people may not have considered – have things progressed to the point where, in the LFB at least, these procedures have been developed to protect fire-fighters but not those they are supposed to be protecting, in a similar situation?  In addition, it appears that, so far, there has been no real change in fire safety legislation affecting private dwellings – so are we sitting around waiting for the next big disaster, with more lives to be sacrificed?

There’s something else that may be worth considering.  Well before the Camberwell fire happened, two fire-fighters died rescuing people from a tower block in Stevenage.  Shortly after Camberwell another two fire-fighters died rescuing people from a tower block in Southampton.

In Camberwell not one fire-fighter was hurt, but six people were not rescued and died – in a tower block.  There was a so-called ‘stay put’ policy in operation, which is only really practicable when the premises are suitable.  In this case, poor fire compartmentation meant that the premises were not safe to apply such a policy, but the occupants were told to remain in their flats, regardless.  When smoke and fire are in the flat a ‘stay put’ policy is insane – as every trained fire-fighter knows.

To add fuel to the metaphorical flames, there has been a recent case, in Warwickshire, where two fire officers were to have been prosecuted for the involuntary manslaughter of fire-fighters, after committing crews, without sufficient tactical information.

In my day I’d have committed highly trained crews, to carry out ‘snatch’ rescues, in the simple knowledge that persons lives were at risk.  At Lakanal House, fire-fighters were, apparently, held back by their officers who were, almost certainly, conscious of the HSE health and safety edicts and potential prosecution if they ‘took a risk’.  Whilst the LFB may need more resources and additional statutory powers to enable them to operate more effectively, especially in the domestic arena, it is hardly worth putting the lives of those they are charged to protect at risk to get them.

It looks like rescue operations were severely delayed and, in fact, people were told to stay in what became their tombs.  Nobody wants to send a fire-fighter to their death, but like the armed forces, when you sign up you know that you will be dealing with dangerous situations and you are taught to deal with these in a way that gives both you and the people you are protecting the best possible chance of survival.

So, is the reason this case has been held back a delaying tactic, to allow the LFB time to come up with believable answers to any questions about risk-averse operational procedures?

Risk simply cannot be removed completely from any aspect of life, domestic or business, which is why I’m passionate about helping people take risks in the safest possible way.  However, there’s a real difference between taking calculated risks and putting lives at risk by avoiding risk altogether, especially if you’re in a risk business.

Essential equipment for fire safety?

In my day the Fire Brigade were there to support, educate and befriend businesses and homes and help them to get fire safety right so that lives were protected. These days they seem to have a new piece of equipment – a metaphorical sledgehammer for cracking ‘nuts’.

I keep coming across situations where the fire authorities and the local authorities approach is oppressive and, worse, inconsistent. This is particularly true where there is dual enforcement.
We have several clients in the social housing business who are struggling with the level of enforcement. The Fire Authority seems to be using today’s legislation – which is not retrospective – to force landlords to bring their buildings into line. In fact, some fire strategies could be removed rather than upgraded – they’ve just been overprovided.

Poor advice and this sledgehammer approach to enforcement is costing businesses time, effort, money and resulting in unnecessary enforcement notices, prohibition notices and a lot of stress and worry that could be avoided.

The government is creating legislation and the enforcement authorities are interpreting this as a licence to crack nuts. It’s not good for business and, in the long run, it’s not good for the economy – I know of at least one business that the owner closed, simply because the oppressive enforcement made him ill.

Change is needed; positive change that uses a common sense approach to risk and safety. Are you ready to help us make it happen?

Qualified to help?

The register of consultants (not those employed as safety advisors within companies) who qualify to deliver advice on health and safety has now been established. This was a point raised in Lord Young’s report (common Sense Common Safety www.cabinetoffice.gov.uk) which has been accepted by the government in full.

To be listed on the Occupational Safety and Health Consultants Register (OSHCR) you must belong to one half a dozen bodies and be at a designated level.

So far, so good – but – and it’s a big ‘but’ niche skills don’t give someone the qualifications to deliver all aspects of health and safety. For instance – a Registered Member of the Institute of Ergonomics and Human Factors has a very specific specialism and may not know a lot about handling hazardous substances.

When it comes to fire – a huge risk element – there are no fire bodies listed at all on this register.

As I’m a Chartered member of the Institution of Occupational Safety and Health (CMIOSH) I represent Risk and Safety Plus on OSHCR, but I’m not qualified to conduct medium to high risk fire assessments and wouldn’t put our clients at risk by attempting to carry one out – that’s why we’ve got a fire division with highly qualified fire engineers available to our clients.

There’s no differentiation on the OSHCR register – no specialisms listed so, for most people, it’s a case of working down a list. This was demonstrated recently when we received an enquirer looking for a Health and Safety advisor. They’d consulted the register and entered their postcode, which created a list of registered advisors in their area. They just started at the top of the list and worked down alphabetically!

We were at number 6 – but nobody else answered their phone! Sole practitioners have this challenge, but you would expect a professional business person to at least have an answering machine or an answering service rather than miss out on potential business.

It says a lot about specialists having an awareness of business as a whole – or not.

Risk and Safety Plus have an edge as we can offer our clients not only basic health and safety advice, but much more sophisticated offerings that integrate health and safety into business improvement to create an integrated management system and protect business continuity. We address the whole business not just one aspect of it.

Chris Hilder