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.
November 22, 2013


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LFB Tests New Post-Lakanal House Procedures

The London Fire brigade (LFB) carried out a major training exercise last week to test the new initiatives and improved procedures it has implemented since the tragedy at Lakanal House in 2009, in which six people died in a devastating fire at the high-rise block in south London.

Click here to view Figure 1.

Putting it to the test

The lessons learned from Lakanal about the response to a high-rise fire were assessed to ascertain whether they would work in an actual high-rise fire emergency in this exercise, which was coordinated by a London borough and in which a fire on the ninth floor of a 17-storey block of flats was realistically reconstructed.

Twelve fire engines and 80 firefighters were used in the multi-agency exercise, together with LFB’s 999 control staff, police officers, the London ambulance service, and staff from the Barking and Dagenham local authority. Actors played the role of injured residents in the test, in which synthetic smoke was used to simulate the fire scenario. Firefighters made sure they were familiar with the layout of the test building while lessons learned about command and control were tested.

Safety failings

LFB, 999 operators, and the Southwark Council were all criticised for the events leading up to the tragedy during the inquest into the deaths of Catherine Hickman, Dayana Francisquini and her two children, and Helen Udoaka and her three-week-old daughter.

The coroner found a string of failings by the brigade at Lakanal, including:

  • Inadequate and impaired communications among firefighters
  • Lack of, and inconsistent, training of brigade control operators, particularly over the issue of whether to advise residents in high-rise fires to stay put, or flee the building
  • A lack of forward evacuation planning in the event of a fire
  • A lack of knowledge of, or familiarisation with, the layout of the complex tower block, any fixed firefighting installations, the locations of street hydrants, the means of escape for residents, and any security key codes the responders would need to gain access
  • An insufficient generic risk assessment on high-rise fire fighting

Lessons learned

The coroner wrote to LFB earlier this year acknowledging that the brigade had undertaken extensive work to learn from its experience with the Lakanal House fire. She said it had taken steps to introduce new policies and review existing ones on:

  • Guidance to crews making risk assessments and familiarisation visits for sites in their areas, the gathering of information regarding flats with unusual layouts, and access for aerial ladder platforms and other specialist vehicles
  • Improved cooperation with other London borough landlords to develop a pilot scheme for the provision of premises information plates at buildings
  • Communication between brigade control and firefighters at an incident
  • Advice on the handling of fire survival guidance calls and training for officers
  • The installation of mobile computers on fire engines to enable familiarization data to be viewed at fire scenes (presupposing that familiarization data is available in the first place)

Further initiatives

Since Lakanal, the brigade says it has honoured the pledge it made earlier this year to play a leading role in promoting a wider understanding of fire safety among high-rise residents. It said it had already introduced a range of new initiatives, policies, and equipment to improve planning and response to the operational challenges of incidents involving residential high-rise buildings, including:

  • Optimising the way the brigade gathers information and clarifying what fire crews should highlight and record when they carry out familiarization visits
  • Implementing recommendations from the brigade’s own review into the command structure at incidents
  • Introducing new training to improve a crew’s awareness and understanding of 999 control centre practices and the fire survival guidance given by them to trapped people.

However, despite these changes, LFB was accused in April this year of not having made visits to at least 21 tower blocks rated as high risk by councils within the previous 12 months. The brigade said in its defence that its judgement of high risk differed from that of local authorities.

Some of the other new processes the LFB has implemented since Lakanal include:

  • Improved information available to firefighters on the location and layout of high-rise buildings in order to avert wasting precious time, which could lead to fatal delays
  • Making sure information from trapped people can be relayed from 999 control centres to firefighters making the rescue
  • A new fire safety forum for responsible external organisations such as local authorities, housing associations, and care providers

Future measures

Are high-rises safer places to live now? A spokesperson for LFB told IFSEC Global that several other new initiatives to improve fire safety in high-rises are in the pipeline and would be revealed in the near future.

LFB attended 786 high-rise fires in 2011/2012, so this latest initiative, part of a number of large-scale training exercises carried out each year, could not come soon enough. The lessons learned from the disaster are perhaps the only good thing to come out of the terrible events at Lakanal House.

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November 25, 2013 8:20 am

It’s interesting to see the local authority and the fire service have differing judgements on high risk properties. Just goes to show there is no standardised approach to what is a very complicated risk assessment issue.

November 27, 2013 2:36 am

It is indeed very good to see the lessons learned and responsive measures taken and many other measures in the pipeline. It is a pity though that we have to wait for a tragedy to learn our lessons. Proposed familiarization visits can be immensely helpful for crews in case they have to actually undertake firefighting in those buildings. These kind of preemptive strategies are needed more and more.

November 27, 2013 2:36 am

@ Gerry_dunphy, it is rather frightening to find the absence of a standard risk assessment procedure which could put number of buildings at risk. Although we are not sure whether local authorities are being a little protective in risk assessment or LFB is being complacent, being a little more cautious in what concerns human lives is always a good thing to do than being less cautious.

November 27, 2013 9:29 am
Reply to  SunitaT

While I don’t disagree Sunita, I suppose there are diffculties in a standardized approach when the buildings’ structures can be very different and present varying challenges for risk assessment. In addition depending on the approaches to evacuation or stay put policies there will be elements of debate and judgement at a local level. The real positive is there is intense scrutiny of the events, how they unfolded and the repercussions so the learning aspect is quick and the lessons rapidly absorbed.

December 12, 2013 4:16 am
Reply to  gerry_dunphy

yes, you are right simular problem we have in Canada… as assesment geting more and more complicated… even with new technology and changer in the fire safety law…