Firefighters’ anger with the Grenfell Tower inquiry

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By Clare Horner

Firefighters are beginning to wonder whether the Grenfell Tower Inquiry is a colossal travesty of justice after the first week of cross examination. The inquiry previously heard testimony from the bereaved, survivors and residents in May, followed by expert presentations on the origin and development of the fire. It is already clear that a relatively small kitchen fire in a single flat spread via faulty windows to flammable cladding. This cladding spread the blaze to the top of the building in just 12 minutes and across the crown to the other sides, turning the building into an inferno.

Last week was the first time witnesses were questioned. First on the stand were not those who made and sold the cladding, or the contractors who installed it. There was no sign of the TMO that owned the building and is responsible for fire safety, nor the local councillors who signed off the refurbishment. Ministers who imposed deregulation and slashed one-in-five firefighter jobs in recent years were scarcely mentioned.

The first people to be questioned were firefighters. Not just any firefighters or even senior officers who run the London Fire Brigade. No, it was four the first firefighters sent to put out a fire in one flat in Grenfell Tower, as they had done previously in nearby tower blocks such as Shepherd’s Court and Trellick Tower just months before.

These were the handful of firefighters who went into the flat in breathing apparatus, searched for life and then professionally put out the kitchen fire, despite extreme heat, heavy smoke and zero visibility. These were the firefighters who saw the fire break out of the flat window and put water on it from below. Firefighters within the flat lent out of the window in a desperate effort to stop it spreading. They could not put the fire out because the whole building was covered in flammable material that burned like petrol. But they did not stop. They spent the rest of night rescuing people, fighting the fire and taking desperate calls from trapped residents.

Rightly people who live around Grenfell Tower and much further afield regard these firefighters as heroes. They risked their lives and saved hundreds of people. They showed valour and skills that make them the pride of the working class. They did not cause the Grenfell Tower fire. They were not responsible for the fire safety failings of the building. But they had to deal with the fire in real time with few resources. Respect for their endeavour should be guaranteed.

Not so by the Grenfell Tower Inquiry. The lead counsel, Richard Millett QC questioned watch manager Mike Dowden, the junior officer left in charge for the first hour, for three full days. Millett badgered Dowden for hours about his competence and whether he had memorised various contradictory policy documents. This was a softening up for questions about his command of the incident and why more lives were not saved.

Millett is an overpaid lawyer specialising in commercial disputes, especially for hedge funds and Caribbean-based tax havens. He clearly failed to master his brief – assuming wrongly that Dowden was a more senior officer and putting questions to him that should have been asked of LFB senior management. He also tried to blame Dowden for not checking the cladding, when even the government says this is legally a matter for council building control inspectors, not the fire service.

Millett pressed Dowden about why he didn’t evacuate the building half an hour into the fire. The ‘stay put’ advice to residents is a built in design feature of all tower blocks. Flats are meant to be fire compartments. Grenfell had 300 residents that night, but it could have been double that. Grenfell had one stairway barely a metre wide. Some lobbies and stairwells became smoke logged very quickly as the fire broke back into the building on upper floors. There was no central means of communication to residents. There were only about 20 firefighters on scene when the fire spread to the top of the building.

Mike Dowden faced a Hobson’s choice that night. Almost every aspect of the buildings safety, including fire doors, windows, ventilation, lifts and water mains failed to some extent. As FBU general secretary Matt Wrack said this week, ‘stay put’ failed before the fire, when they put up the cladding. But mass evacuation was not an option. Even if firefighters had managed to get a message to residents to get out, they could have been telling them to walk into toxic atmospheres that would have killed them on the spot. Or they would have triggered a crush on the stairs trapping everyone above and probably costing more lives. Instead firefighters did as much as they could to contain the fire and to rescue as many people as they could. Firefighters helped get three-quarters of residents out – they are not responsible for those who perished.

The Grenfell Tower Inquiry lurched last week. Firefighters are sick of getting the blame for the fire, when the real perpetrators responsible have not faced a single question. This is not justice for the bereaved, survivors and residents – nor is it holding those in power to account for their role. The inquiry would be better if it simply allowed the firefighters to explain what they did on the night, and then got on with the business of scrutinising those who ignored the warnings and turned Grenfell Tower into a ticking time bomb.

FBU General Secretary Matt Wrack on Grenfell:

“I’ve described Grenfell as an atrocity. 71 people died not because of war or terrorism but effectively because of a domestic fire.

“This was worse than anything since the Blitz, since the Second World War. There’s the question about what’s the regime under which this could happen, what’s the housing regime, what’s the building regime, what’s the fire safety regime, what’s the regime in terms of public safety… The FBU has expressed our solidarity with the community. We’ve tried to work very closely with the local community, and with the Justice for Grenfell campaign.We think our interests overlap with theirs, although residents may have questions they want to ask about the fire service, and they will do.

“I’ve heard the phrase used by lots of people, including ministers, to say this needs to be a turning point, but I fear there’s going to be a huge drive to make sure thisis not a turning point, and that things stay the same.”

• For the interview with The Clarion from which this is taken, including much more on what the FBU has done around Grenfell, see here.

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  1. It’s maybe a little premature to say the inquiry is blaming firefighters this early on? I don’t think we can assume the people who are actually responsible (council, builders, government) are going to get an easier ride when it’s their turn. I suspect the opposite.

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