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November 15, 2019

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The Grenfell legacy: learnings from history

Tracie Williams, Managing Director of Evident Software, details why responses to the Grenfell tragedy need to be better than similar catastrophes in the past.  

On August 20, 1989, during the early hours of the morning, the Marchioness, a 47-ton pleasure steamer hired for a birthday celebration and packed with 130 partygoers, sank in just half-a-minute after colliding with the Bowbell, a 1,475-ton dredger on the River Thames in London.  

The catastrophe, which became known as The Marchioness Disaster, resulted in the deaths of 51 people. The Marine Accident Investigation Branch (MAIB) launched an investigation in the days following the collision, and following its report in 1991, a number of safety recommendations were implemented. This included improvements to lookouts and the need for boats to be equipped with navigation lights.  

In 1999, following pressure from the families of the victims, then-deputy prime minister John Prescott ordered a public inquiry into safety on the River Thames and the circumstances surrounding the sinking. 

The inquiry was held in the year 2000 and a report was published in February 2001 by Lord Justice Clarke, which made a number of river safety recommendations. They were all accepted by John Prescott. 

30 years down the line and It’s been shockingly revealedthat even the ‘most basic’ safety recommendations made after the disaster are, in some cases, yet to be implementedMany older and historical boats have still not undergone changes recommended by experts, whilst The Maritime and Coastguard Agency’s safety proposals to improve boat buoyancy have also been faced with backlash.  

 

A warning from history 

Two years on from the Grenfell Fire and a year on from the Hackitt Report, which was commissioned by government following the fire to make recommendations on the future regulatory system, a similar situation exists.  

Alongside a proposed change in control process and associated record-keeping requirements, Dame Judith Hackitt recommended what she called a ‘golden thread of information’ to ensure the transparency and compliance of fire safety equipment maintenance in residential buildings. Considering the tragedy of Grenfell, the housing industry is slow to adopt these recommendations, or any real progress on those set out by the report. Most residents of existing large residential buildings are no safer than they were before the fire.   

The Marchioness disaster is a warning from history that complacency, such as that seen since the Grenfell Fire, can continue to fester and prevent us from taking steps to ensure that history does not repeat itself. This cannot be allowed to continue. 

 

Grenfell‘Golden thread of information’ doesn’t exist – yet

Compliance processes are currently not fit for purpose, with many authorities and landlords having very little oversight over the safety equipment in their properties or how effectively they are being maintained. Landlords are also completely confined by the contractors who control their records (of which many vary in quality). Some contractors are still using paper-based systems, whilst others have digitalised their records – but both offer no insight into the bigger picture.  

Lives depend on essential safety equipment being implemented and properly maintained – and within their expiry dates. The risks of poor compliance and change control cannot be overstated. The reputations and indeed freedom of those responsible all depend on the due care and diligence taken to protect these residents. 

At the end of the day, it’s the landlords who are ultimately accountable and responsible, whilst fires can, and often, happen. From March 2018-19, the Fire and Rescue Services attended 29,570 dwelling fires. 820 of those fires were in purpose-built, high-rise (10+ storeys) flats, which is a 3% increase compared to the previous year (800). It also equates to more than two fires a day in properties of this type.  

 

Regaining control

Landlords need to take back control of fire safety compliance to ensure transparency, oversight and accountability. If records are entirely held by a contractor, as a landlord, can you be sure you are seeing an entirely accurate picture? And what happens if you move to another contractor – will the information be passed on in a way that the new company can seamlessly integrate with? 

A holistic view of what equipment exists, what work needs to be done, what work hasn’t been done, and what work is upcoming is essential if landlords are going to regain control. And having a live and digestible approach would also be hugely beneficial to landlords. 

Quite simply, keeping records is not the same as compliance. Paper records are antiquated and prone to loss, damage, illegibility and mistakes, but even digital records can be useless if not executed correctly. Just because a form has been created to show a piece of work has been done, has it actually? Is there a GPS and time stamp that proves the contractor was actually at that location?  

Only by creating a dashboard so that compliance performance can be monitored, and contractors can be held to account at any time, will landlords succeed.   

 

Time for action

The recommendations made in Dame Judith Hackitt’s report should be applied to all properties and facilities, not just high-rise residential buildings. Anyone responsible for buildings where people live, stay, visit or work must ensure this transparency, oversight and accountability. Lives very much depend on it.   

Once landlords have regained the control of the safety of their buildings, they can then extend this transparency to their residents and confidence can be restored. Allowing residents to see the equipment in their building and proof that it’s being effectively maintained will help build trust within communities. 

A landlord’s credibility can significantly decline every time a fire breaks out, not to mention increasing fear and panic felt by residents. If landlords get it right, however, they will be able to provide peace of mind for all involved.  Even though they were some 30 years apart, there are clear parallels to be drawn between the Grenfell and Marchioness tragedies and implementing safety recommendations to existing properties and boats will help ensure that these events are not repeated. Waiting for 30 years to act upon failings can’t be an option for the case of Grenfell, and if no action is taken a similar disaster could be just around the corner. The time to act is now.  

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