Journalist, Cherry Park

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Cherry Park is an experienced freelance journalist and reporter who specializes in features, news, and news analysis, in print and online. She has written extensively in the areas of health and safety, fire safety, employment, HR, recruitment, rewards, pay and benefits, market research, environment, and metallurgy, and she also conducts research.
February 12, 2013


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Lakanal House Inquest: Missed Opportunities

Jurors at the ongoing inquest into the deaths of six people in the July 2009 Lakanal House tower block fire in South London heard that precious time was lost as firefighters endeavoured to save those who were trapped.

The so-named super-inquest, now into its fifth week, was told that inadequate communication among firefighters hindered the emergency services, according to a BBC London report.

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Evidence was given from firefighters on what they knew, when they knew it, and with whom they communicated in the early stages of tackling the blaze, whilst it may still have been possible to reach trapped residents.

Firefighters did not know, and were not told, how people might be rescued and did not have any plans of the complex building that might have helped them.

Crew manager Barry Willett said the crew had not undertaken any familiarisation visits of the tower block beforehand in order to build up knowledge of the layout, any fixed firefighting installations, the locations of hydrants in the streets, and any security key codes they would need to gain access.

According to the BBC London report, firefighter Mark Mullins, who was responsible for relaying messages from the operations control room to the incident commander at Lakanal, said it took more than 14 minutes for information to be passed on about people trapped in their flats. Six people, including three children, later died inside the flats.

Alex Miller, a trainee firefighter attending his first high-rise fire, told the court that radio communications with those fighting the seat of the fire using breathing apparatus radios were “limited”.

Asked by the counsel to the inquest, James Maxwell-Scott, if there were any single thing that would have most helped him to carry out his duties on that day, he replied that this would have been unimpaired means of communication with other firefighters.

The first fire chief on the scene was unaware of escape routes from individual flats in the tower block, Inside Housing reported.

The inquest also heard that John Howling, the watch manager in charge of the incident, had been “completely swamped by information” from police, the ambulance service, residents, and brigade personnel about which flats were afire. But firefighters had very little information about the layout of the 14-storey tower block, and exactly where each flat was located.

Eighteen firefighters have so far given evidence to say they had no idea of the layout of the high-rise building or the means of escape for residents via their balconies when they arrived to fight the fire.

The inquest so far paints a shocking picture of missed opportunities, lost time, insufficient communication, and an apparent total lack of forward planning on how to evacuate residents in the event of a fire. It remains to be seen what further lessons will be learned as the inquest unfolds.

The inquest is expected to continue until Easter. A daily summary of the proceedings is available on Lambeth council’s website.

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February 12, 2013 11:42 am

It seems that the tragic deaths of these people were not down to a single mistake however the severity of the fire was decided upon by the quality or lack of risk assessment. A suitable and sufficient fire risk assessment should have reduced the risk as far as possible. It should have picked up on the ineffective means of escape and compartmentation. It should have detailed the evacuation plan and really should have considered access for fire fighters. A good risk assessor will have also picked up on the fact that in this high rise sleeping risk premises the fire… Read more »

Rob Ratcliff
Rob Ratcliff
February 12, 2013 1:58 pm
Reply to  Welland

I still find it surprising that there were no corporate manslaughter charges as the prosecutor noted: “Given that some of the alleged breaches occurred before the new Corporate Manslaughter Act came in to force, I considered this case under the common law offence of gross negligence manslaughter. “I have concluded that there is insufficient evidence to establish any personal gross breach of duty on the part of a sufficiently senior official of the council or any of the companies, which could be said to have caused death, as would be necessary under that law to bring a prosecution.” Seems to… Read more »

March 12, 2013 8:58 am

As always it seems like the people who should have been aware of the dangers but had never even been to the site before are allowed to walk away with very little criticism! Funny how you hear that the fire brigade are so professional and always deserve more money and for their jobs to be protected, yet let down the very people who pay their wages, the tax-payer and council tax payer! The fire brigade have for a long time in most areas of the country been making regular visits, or should have been, to high rise flats to be aware of… Read more »

John Bone
John Bone
March 13, 2013 2:01 pm
Reply to  Finbar

Alas I think it is too early to rush into the “blame game” or “why No one has been prosecuted “as yet!”. As the London Fire Authority still could bring criminal charges under the Regulatory Reform Fire Safety Order 2005.  This is why there is a super inquest being held in public. To get at the facts and the truth of what was and was not done. So I would recomend everyone interested in fire safety, especially in elderly purpose built blocks of flats, to read the daily transcripts. I think we all have a lot to learn. For us not to… Read more »