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18 September 2017

Grenfell: changing attitudes to the way we build and look after buildings

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It takes a disaster, major loss of life or destruction to property to get Britain to focus on fire. So, fire regulations have only improved significantly after serious fires, starting with the great fire of London in 1666.

After the Grenfell Tower fire, people will remember external cladding as the culprit because the search narrowed rapidly to focus on a single cause of failure. But experience of what went wrong in previous fires suggests multiple failures will be to blame: a mix of product, practice and policing, not just one cheaper product, or one inappropriate spec.

However fire starts, it’s essential to contain it to its point of origin. But typically there are many routes for fire to spread: fire doors not maintained, wedged open or missing; openings for pipes not stopped; the inadvertent creation of ‘chimneys’ behind the external cladding to accelerate fire etc. So when there is a fire there’s a high risk of it quickly getting out of control.

To reduce the number of serious fires, we need to raise awareness and change attitudes to the way we build and look after buildings.

In the welter of media comment and official statements on Grenfell, there was almost no informed comment. Most people know almost nothing about fire protection, but the Regulatory Reform (Fire Safety) Order 2005 devolved responsibility for fire risk assessment to individual businesses and property managers, without providing much to guide them. News of the change was poorly communicated, so most people are still not aware they are responsible. Legislation to force people to do the right thing is sometimes part of the answer, but usually only a small part.

Generally, people don’t know what they should do, nor what good practice is, and legislation doesn’t change that. Continuous large scale marketing communications so everyone does know is a first step. Then ‘policing’ to remind people, bring regulation breakers to book, and telling everyone they’ve been caught so people get it. We do it when we want to change risky practices such as seat belts, or drinking and driving. Why not fire?

Everyone was appalled by Grenfell. But the building is not a one off. Evidence suggests many buildings are at risk, and we’ll suffer more serious fires unless we improve Britain’s awareness and understanding of fire protection, and change our attitudes to the practice and policing of regulations. More legislation won’t make a difference. Those who scrupulously implement regulations will adopt the improvements. Those who don’t, won’t bother with new ones.

After Lakanal House ten years ago, where six people died, around 200 tower blocks across the UK were risk assessed and local authorities rectified them at considerable expense. Eventually, this February, Southwark Council was fined £570,000 for breaking fire safety regulations. There was an investigation and report with recommendations, but who put them into practice?

Fire professionals warned that Lakanal or worse could happen again, and it did. Let’s hope someone in Government is listening this time.

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