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December 19, 2019

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The Grenfell legacy

Tracie Williams, Managing Director of Evident Software

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 over a year on from the Hackitt Report, which was commissioned by government following the fire to make recommendations o

n 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. 


‘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.  

History has demonstrated that it’s not enough to pledge to learn from previous events. Grenfell has shown with terrible clarity that lip service is not enough, and that without innovation and ‘out of the box’ thinking, the current inertia surrounding building regulations and fire safety will persist.



So, where next?

For all of the reasons outlined above, Phase II of the Grenfell Enquiry will have major implications for landlords, housing associations, council housing departments and their agents and managers. But Grenfell has already triggered change.

The current parliamentary green paper on social housing, which makes explicit links to Grenfell, calls for landlords to provide safer, better quality social accommodation and take greater account of tenants’ voices. There is strong and widespread concern, again in light of Grenfell, that building rules have not been adequately enforced for years and this matter is now under scrutiny.

While the Grenfell enquiry has scheduled detailed investigation of building regulation and fire safety matters for Phase II, the Hackitt report has already given full and careful attention to many of these issues, albeit in the wider, nationwide, context.

In her report, Dame Hackitt states clearly and unequivocally that regulatory tools and enforcement have not been adequate and that major change is needed. She describes the building/social housing sector as having a ‘race to the bottom’ mentality with fragmented and unclear lines of responsibility and accountability leading to ineffective or downright dangerous practice. Whether this is due to ignorance, laziness, or because the system discourages good practice, is unknown but immaterial: the fact is that current behaviour often puts lives at risk.


What types of innovation?

Of course, asking for outcomes and actually generating them are two very different things. For those operating within a regulatory system that has already been described as largely unfit for purpose it’s even harder, because by definition the ‘tried and trusted’ and long-established routes have failed. The sector has to reinvent itself and its approaches to a very great extent.

One guiding principle that comes from the Grenfell Phase I report is that reliable testing and certification of building materials and equipment, and assurance that these are fit for purpose throughout the building’s lifecycle, are required. These issues will come under much greater scrutiny in Phase II.

This generates an interesting question: to what extent do landlords and building managers actually know what assets they have, and their responsibilities in relation to those assets?

Does their knowledge run to the number of buildings they own or administer, or do they know what they are responsible for right down to the last fire door or smoke alarm? Because post-Grenfell, they absolutely need the latter degree of understanding.

Turning to the responsibilities, how are these accounted for? The average housing association administers hundreds, or thousands of properties. In an outcomes-based system they’re going to need information about every fire alarm, every fire door, every safety system. They will have to verify when each of those items was installed, whether it needs servicing, when it is due for replacement. That’s a big ask, particularly of major social landlords.

But in an outcomes-based system they just have to do it, no matter how.

Fortunately, we live in a technological age and Grenfell has already inspired some innovative responses in the form of software and asset tracking and monitoring systems. It seems likely that the growing internet of things, with its potential for remote monitoring and connection, will also be useful in this area.

But asset control and surveillance, while it lies at the heart of the practical response to this challenge, and meets the demands of outcomes and accountability, only forms part of the response.

Because the housing sector needs to change more than its protocols and methodologies. Relationships and power balances are also shifting in light of Grenfell. The social housing green paper echoes the ‘outcomes-based’ theme in its intention to provide residents with the ‘tools they need to hold their landlords to account’ including, potentially, the power to recommend or decry them in some (currently unspecified) form of public reporting.

Unsurprisingly, the survivors and bereaved of Grenfell are at the front of the battle for change. They too want a new culture to prevail in the management of housing and demand changes to building regulations and fire safety. Bringing about change on that scale is always going to be hard, but bringing it about in a country that has been dominated by single-issue politics since 2016 and has recently experienced itssecond general election in three years is even harder.

But nobody – least of all anybody involved in housing provision – can allow politicking and point-scoring to overshadow what is truly important. People must be protected from fire, and the system must change – in light of the Grenfell enquiry, the Hackitt report and all other facts arising. The sector must take new, innovative approaches to generate the safety outcomes now being demanded.


The Future of Fire Safety: download the eBook

Is the fire protection industry adapting to the post-Grenfell reality fast enough? At FIREX International 2019, Europe's only dedicated fire safety event, some of the world's leading fire safety experts covered this theme. This eBook covers the key insights from those discussions on the developments shaping the profession, with topics including:

  • Grenfell Inquiry must yield “bedrock change” – and soon
  • After Grenfell: Jonathan O’Neill OBE on how austerity and policy “on the hoof” are hampering progress
  • Hackitt’s Golden Thread: Fire, facilities and building safety
  • Fire safety community has to “get on board” with technological changes

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