Adam Bannister

Editor, IFSEC Global

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Adam Bannister is editor of IFSEC Global. A former managing editor at Dynamis Online Media Group, he has been at the helm of the UK's leading fire and security publication since 2014.
July 13, 2017

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Stephen Mackenzie Q&A

Grenfell video: Scotland’s decisive response to its own tower-block tragedy put England to shame

There are so many dimensions to the Grenfell fire that it’s hard to know where to start.

In the video below, fire-risk consultant Stephen Mackenzie examines everything from the privatisation of fire-safety research to the inadequate logistical response on the ground in the immediate aftermath and the glacial pace of regulatory change in England versus Scotland.

Below you can also read the transcript of the interview, which was conducted at fire safety exhibition FIREX 2017.

“I’m aware that the building regulations are under constant review, but there’s a dichotomy in the turnaround time: four years for the Lakanal report, one year for the Scottish Garnock report.”

Stephen Mackenzie on the privatisation of fire research provision…

“We’ve increasingly seen over the past decades, our fire research provision within the UK, which is internationally renowned, becoming increasingly privatised. Whether it’s a research establishment which is now a charitable trust, whether it’s a fire service college which is now under the major government support contracts, or the emergency planning college which is under another support service provider…”

On funding challenges for academic fire research…

“The other thing we’ve seen is it’s increasingly more challenging for fire research academic teams to give that true independence in UK regions to secure funding for more fashionable, thematic areas. We have very small programmes with research, very important given life safety issues, and property protection issues, but we’re in competition with larger, more profitable business degrees, MBAs and suchlike.”

On the skills shortage in fire engineering…

“We’ve also seen an erosion of succession routes for younger engineers in a challenging environment to become industry captains. Where we’re seeing a throughput, so young professional awards, we didn’t have recipients.

“So we need to look at that through funding of the fire cadet programme nationally, fire service trainees, encourage others to support those endeavours, and also look to how we fund our research.

“Ten or 11 years ago the Department of Community at local government was trying to get a national fire research academy off the ground. Unfortunately the commentary that came back on a very comprehensive research proposal, sponsored and supported by the whole sector, was you’ve already got many organisations, therefore we can’t fund it. but it needs that focal point, that independence, and we need that international recognition and response.”

On the government’s immediate response and failure to convene COBRA…

“I think we’ve seen a comparison between the Grenfell fire and Finsbury Park terrorist attack. Immediately following the Finsbury Park attack, Theresa May convened COBRA.

“That should have been the case on Thursday [the day after the fire], [or] the latter hours of Wednesday. Convene COBRA, get emergency personnel leads in, coordinate with local authority responders, and have a better response and management of media, and  [to] the families’ and residents’ concerns.

Not only for Grenfell Tower blocks, but for all tower blocks in the UK. I feel it could have been sharper, more effective, and then the central government may not have received some of the criticism it has.

“I fully recognise the multi-agency response by the emergency services was fantastic. Those individuals in all three emergency services put themselves at significant risk, with debris falling down from the building on top of them. Significant injuries occurring with the fire personnel, they still went into that building. When their dynamic risk assessments have said this is too risky for even emergency services personnel, possibly.

“The other thing we need to see is the softer services where we move from coordinated triad of emergency services. We have London-based annual emergency services exercises. We had one last year, a unified exercise, it went very well. We’re very experienced.

“But then we seem to see some local stress and shocks with the local authority response. But now see that they have now caught up to speed. So I think moving from the emergency services response into the softer response by local authorities and the government, and there are a number of professional bodies in the UK that can facilitate and exist with that.

“So it might be another line of enquiry for the coroner report, and also the public inquiry.”

On the Lakanal House report…

“There’s actually about 30 case studies, both in the UK and internationally, that we can refer to. Some of the more contemporary ones and two of the more important ones I’ll draw attention to.

[First,] the Lakanal report in 2013, following the Lakanal Camberwell fire.

“There were a number of recommendations made in that coroner court inquiry, predominantly looking at emergency service response and also looking at the complexities in interpretation of our building legislation, and the need for reducing, streamlining it, and making it more practical in application.

“That’s a longstanding issue. I believe some of the professional bodies in the fire service community are doing research, campaigning, and petitioning government on that. I’ll let them report on their own positions.”

On the Garnock Court inquiry…

“The other more significant one that I have been talking about in the international press is quite a well-known report done by one of the legal councillors in the UK. It makes reference, and I’m making referencing to the source, a public inquiry report, for the Garnock Court fire in Scotland in 1999.

“The public inquiry was published in 2000, to the House of Commons. So we’ve heard with Grenfell, Theresa May saying we’ll go to a full public inquiry, we’ll have parallel coroner court inquiries, and parallel criminal, and possibly civil actions as well.

“But in 2000, there was a report, and I’ll quote, while this inquiry did not suggest the majority of external cladding systems in the UK currently in use pose a serious threat to life safety or property in event of fire, they did go on to add, we do not believe it should take a serious fire in which many people are killed before all reasonable steps are taken towards minimising the fire risk.

“They then go on to make commentary about the inclusion of standards through the British Standards Institute, revision of the Approved Document B, and the title of that report under the reference was The Potential Risk of Fire Spread in Buildings via External Cladding Systems.

“We have known about this problem and issue in the fire sector, the House of Commons are aware of it. the Prime Minister’s office is now aware of it, I imagine, through the national press and their own technical advisors.”

On the glacial pace of regulatory change in England versus Scotland…

“Let’s look at legislation. We did it in Scotland. When we reviewed our fire safety legislation we also brought in new building regulations, we brought in new technical handbooks. And I believe, if memory services me correct, the most recent release was either in June 2016 or June 2017.

“I am aware that the building regulations are under constant review. But there seems to be a dichotomy in the turnaround time: four years for the Lakanal report, one year for the Scottish Garnock report.

“Fire legislation report in Scotland was reviewed in 2005, and continued on the new basis, performance basis, whereas we appear to be limping on with a very outdated and outmoded document. Our colleagues at yesterday’s expert panel [FIREX International 2017 held a debate on the Grenfell fire] were quite vocal about that position.”

 

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