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.

Notices that can’t be ignored

When you’re in business you are in the firing line for all kinds of legislation – and you have to get it right or your business can suffer badly. In fact, it has been known for businesses to simply cease trading because of something they haven’t done, that they should; or something they have done that they shouldn’t!

Typically, when it comes to health and safety, there are laws that govern what any business has a legal obligation to do and a number of authorities that have the right to send their representatives to inspect your premises to ensure that you are compliant. These authorities include the Health and Safety Executive (HSE, the local authority’s Environmental Health department, the Fire and Rescue Authority and the Environment Agency.

If you’re found to be operating outside what they consider to be compliant they can issue a variety of notices. You may get:

• An improvement notice requiring you to commit to making the required improvements by a specified date; usually relating to the Health and Safety at Work Act (HASWA).
• A prohibition notice preventing you from continuing to carry out specified activities. This may be relating to HASWA, the Fire Safety Order (FSO) or Environmental issues.
• An enforcement notice relating to fire safety or environmental issues, requiring you to upgrade or install specified equipment.
• An alterations notice requiring you to make changes in your fire safety activities and/or equipment.
• A works notice (similar to an alterations notice) detailing what needs to be put right relating to environmental safety.

If you receive any of these notices you have 21 days to lodge an appeal – regardless of the date on the notice stating the deadline for compliance. If you don’t take action you could lose your right to appeal.

Get good advice from an independent expert – and don’t panic. Notices are based on the judgement of the enforcing officer and are sometimes over the top. Act quickly and you may be able to stop things going any further.
Two things to be aware of:

1. All notices issued become a public record so you may get some ‘ambulance chasing’ to take place from advisors offering to come and help you address the compliance issues. Don’t get pushed into agreeing with the first person who calls. Ask around and check out companies who offer ‘instant’ advice.

2. Some notices are not notices! Sometimes the authorities issue a form that looks like an enforcement notice, but doesn’t actually have the words ‘enforcement notice’ on it. It’s often issued as a means of frightening unsuspecting companies into action, but is not a legal notice.

Our advice:

If you receive a notice use it as an opportunity to make your system better. It should not be a means of penalising organisations (although some authorities seem to apply it like that). An improvement notice should be an educational tool to help companies improve themselves. A prohibition notice is aimed at protecting people from dangerous conditions, not as a blunt instrument to penalise organisations (but getting independent advice is always a good move).

If you find that a contractor has been issued with a notice in the past, don’t write them off as participating in bad practice. The chances are that they are probably better than most as they have made the effort to get things right.