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.

Enforcement notice ‘season’

The London Fire Brigade (LFB) have just issued 29 enforcement notices to care homes in London. Whilst vulnerable people in residential properties need to be protected in the case of fire, there are some things that, as professional fire risk assessors, we see a little differently.

The three core breaches of fire safety were cited as ‘fire escape plans, training for staff and signage on fire exits’, but no mention of the means of escape and structural fire protection was made – nor was the existence of an effective early warning system commented on.

The LFB were quoted as saying “We don’t issue enforcement notices lightly.” But our experience in the London and Home Counties areas is that enforcement notices are often issued when, on closer examination, some of the demands for improvement are not necessarily right for the premises under scrutiny.

Worse still, we’ve had more than one client in full panic mode on receipt of an ‘enforcement notice’ when, having finally seen the ‘notice’ ourselves, realised that it is not an enforcement notice at all – it just looks like one! Surely this is a case of bullying business owners into taking action that may not be necessary?

The very fact that so many care homes have been visited suggests that it’s open season on care homes. If one third of London’s care homes have had a visit, the LFB is definitely on the warpath.

We have a number of registered social landlords (e.g. housing associations) as clients and we’ve seen enforcement notices that actually require work to be done that is not necessary in relation to the particular building concerned. Sometimes this is simply because of the time the building was built in relation to subsequent legislation, not because the building is unsafe. Some legislation is not retrospective, although the local fire authorities seem to be trying to persuade businesses in their areas otherwise.

Are we saying landlords should not take steps to keep their residents safe? Certainly not – but we are suggesting that they need to get pragmatic expert advice to ensure they don’t do things that may not be necessary out of fear or panic.

Malcolm Tullett