Editor, IFSEC Global

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James Moore is the Editor of IFSEC Global, the leading online publication for security and fire news in the industry. James writes, commissions, edits and produces content for IFSEC Global, including articles, breaking news stories and exclusive industry reports. He liaises and speaks with leading industry figures, vendors and associations to ensure security and fire professionals remain abreast of all the latest developments in the sector.
June 8, 2021

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High-rise fires

Preliminary report into New Providence Wharf fire reveals smoke ventilation failure, with timber balconies “facilitating external spread of fire”

Image from London Fire Brigade Twitter feed

Over 100 firefighters tackled a blaze for nearly three hours at a block of flats covered in ACM cladding at East London’s New Providence Wharf in Poplar on the morning of 7th May. The London Fire Brigade’s preliminary report into the incident highlighted serious failures in the smoke ventilation system, while the external spread of the fire was facilitated by timber decking on balconies.

Inside Housing also reported a few days after the incident that the smoke detection system installed in the New Providence Wharf block failed when smoke began to spread throughout the building. This meant that doors, which are crucial to a fire compartmentation strategy, in the communal areas did not close, and smoke consequently filled the areas as residents attempted to escape.

20 fire engines were called to the scene, where at least three floors were alight at the 19-storey block at 10AM. Two people were taken to hospital as a result of the fire.


Preliminary report from London Fire Brigade (LFB)

A serious failure of a smoke ventilation system that resulted in the building acting like a “broken chimney”  left residents’ only escape route smoke logged during the New Providence Wharf fire, a preliminary report from the London Fire Brigade has said.

The report confirms that the fire started in a consumer unit, known more commonly as the fuse board, in an 8th floor flat. Due to the severity of the fire more testing is needed to find out how exactly the consumer unit failed. The fire then travelled out of an open balcony window. At the same time smoke poured into the corridor through a flat door that had accidentally been kept open.

The Brigade’s provisional investigation into the fire has found that in this particular instance, ACM cladding panels did not significantly contribute to the external spread of the fire. The spread of the fire on the outside of the building from floors 8 to 11 is believed to have been facilitated by timber decking on the balconies.

Government advice issued in January 2020 states that: “Balconies should not assist fire spread along the external wall. Balconies including combustible materials may not meet an appropriate standard of safety and could pose a risk to the health and safety of residents and other building users.”

The London Fire Brigade has highlighted that its response to New Providence Wharf fire demonstrated the significant changes the Brigade has made since the Grenfell Tower fire:

  • Increased numbers of firefighters and appliances initially sent to high rise fires as standard
  • Familliarisation visits conducted by crews prior to the fire
  • The introduction of new evacuation procedures
  • Improved communications between the control room and the incident ground
  • Fire escape hoods

There were 35 rescues, 22 involving fire escape hoods, with two people taken to hospital.

The initial findings from Senior Brigade Fire Investigators show that the smoke detectors on the 8th floor communal corridor failed to operate both the Automatic Opening Vent (AOV) and the cross-corridor fire doors.

In the report, the Brigade pointed out that it is the responsibility of the building owner or manager to make sure the AOV and other smoke ventilation systems operate correctly. It has since urged all those responsible for other high rise buildings to check these as a priority and ensure they are regularly inspected.

It has also urged building managers and owners to check the materials used on external balconies and make modifications if deemed necessary. The Brigade’s parallel investigation into possible breaches of fire safety regulations at New Providence Wharf at the time of the fire is continuing.

London Fire Brigade Deputy Commissioner Richard Mills said: “Despite our response to this fire and drawing on the many lessons learned from the Grenfell Tower fire, in many cases we are sadly still not seeing a culture change in all those responsible for fire safety in high rise buildings.

“The New Providence Wharf fire needs to be an urgent wake-up call to all building owners and managers. Look at the fire safety solutions inside your building and take action if they are not performing correctly. It is too late to wait for a fire to see if they work.”


Further background and response

The development near Canary Wharf had not yet had its ACM cladding – similar material to that used on the Grenfell Tower and considered a serious flammable risk – removed according to East London Advertiser, three and a half years after the tragedy in West London that saw 72 people die. Since the event, both the management company, Ballymore, and London Fire Brigade have noted that the ACM panels did not significantly contribute to the spread of the fire in this instance.

A spokesperson for the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government has said that work was due to be started to remove the cladding on Monday (10th May). Residents, many of who have been responding to the news on social media, highlighted how they had been campaigning for the cladding to be removed since 2017. Several have voiced concerns over the perceived ineffectiveness a Waking Watch strategy played in the evacuation, with security guards or neighbours being cited as the primary response mechanism.

The fire was put out and brought under control by the London Fire Brigade by just after 11:30AM. Reports indicate the flat where the fire started has been destroyed, with the damage visible in the floors above as well.

The development is owned by new home and property development firm, Ballymore. Both the Government and Ballymore have blamed each other for the delays in the cladding remediation process. The cost of fixing the complex is said to be around £11.6million, of which the Government fund to fix buildings of more than 18m in height will cover £8million. The property development firm has said it will only cover an extra £500,000, leaving leaseholders and residents footing the remaining £3.1million.

Campaign group Grenfell United highlighted its concerns in a thread on social media, saying: “We are horrified by the news of the fire at the New Providence Wharf today. When will the government take this scandal seriously? Enough is enough. The Government promised to remove dangerous cladding by June 2020 it has completely failed its own target and every day that goes by lives are at risk. Today more people have lost their homes in another terrifying fire.

“The Government needs to treat this as an emergency and stop stonewalling residents who are raising concerns. No more games, no more excuses. We’ve said all along that another tragedy is waiting to happen unless this crisis is dealt with properly and swiftly. Our thoughts are with those affected.”

 

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Matthew McKaig
Matthew McKaig
May 16, 2021 1:42 pm

Dear Sir, It is noted by a couple of commentators that the Providence Wharf fire started in a ‘fuse box’. If that is the case then it is likely that the ignition was preceded by an incidence of a gradual build up of (high resistive) heat within a consumer unit/fuse box, followed by a Thermal Runaway event – whereby ignition temperatures are reached over a short period of time. To alert a third party or BMS to this gradual build up of heat (and pre-Thermal Runaway) there is a simple device called a Thermarestor, which can faciliate this and so… Read more »