Here Are All The Warnings About Fire Safety Risks In Tall Towers Before Grenfell – BuzzFeed News
1991: The Knowsley Heights fire in Liverpool
What happened? A fire at Knowsley Heights tower in Liverpool in 1991 was started deliberately in a ground floor refuse area outside the building. As a presentation by the Building Research Establishment showed, the tower’s recently installed cladding was of the limited-combustibility variety, but the flames still managed to spread quickly, through a 90mm gap between the rubberised, painted concrete walls and the cladding.
There were no fire breaks in this cavity gap, which allowed the fire to spread upwards past all 11 floors. Luckily, no one was injured.
Were there any recommendations? A House of Commons select committee report in 2000 specifically pointed out that Knowsley was an early example of how rainscreen cladding could contribute to the speed with which fire can spread up the outside of a tower.
The inquiry that followed the Knowsley fire was partly responsible for a change to the part of the building regulations that governs tall buildings and the type of material they use – Approved Document B – in 2006.
Because of this change, material graded at least A2 (i.e., with limited combustibility) must be used on the inside and outside of cladding, and there must be fire breaks in the gap between the cladding and the wall.
But this was the last time the regulations were updated and, as would become clear in several subsequent cases, this may have allowed several tragedies to happen.
1999: A fire ripped up the side of this tower block in Ayrshire
What happened? A 55-year-old man died and five others were injured, including a 15-month-old child, in a fire at Garnock Court in Irvine.
The building had cladding with a plastic core, as Grenfell did, and eyewitnesses described seeing the cladding set alight and flames reach the top of the building within 10 minutes – just like at Grenfell.
What recommendations came after it? A House of Commons select committee inquiry set up in 1999 in the wake of the Garnock Court fire found that most external cladding did not pose “a serious threat to life or property in the event of fire”.
But the MPs also said:
We do not believe that it should take a serious fire in which many people are killed before all reasonable steps are taken towards minimising the risks.
The evidence we have received strongly suggests that the small-scale tests which are currently used to determine the fire safety of external cladding systems are not fully effective in evaluating their performance in a ‘live’ fire situation.
The report recommended in 2000 that local authorities and social landlords should review all buildings with external cladding with the help of fire safety experts and that fire safety legislation should be clarified and “consolidated”.
Was anything done? North Ayrshire council removed all the cladding and PVC windows from the building after the fire.
The incident led to a ban on combustible cladding in Scotland, through legislation introduced in 2005. None of the 137 towers that have tested positive for combustible cladding in the two weeks since Grenfell are in Scotland.
2009: The Lakanal House fire in Camberwell, south London, in which six people died
What happened: In what was previously the UK’s worst tower block fire, three adults and three children died after a TV set alight on the ninth floor of Lakanal House. The victims, who were on the 10th and 11th floors, had been told to stay in their flats by 999 call dispatchers, who wrongly believed that the flames would be contained in the flat where they started.
The inquests into the deaths found that the cladding panels beneath windows did not have the required fire safety rating of 0. The inquest into the death of one victim, Catherine Hickman, found that if these ACM (aluminium composite material) panels had been class 0 they may have slowed the spread of the flames from flat to flat.
The report also noted that there had been no fire safety check on Hickman’s flat since a refurbishment three years earlier.
In March 2017, Southwark council pleaded guilty to four criminal charges and paid £270,000 in fines as well as £300,000 in costs.
What recommendations came after it?
• The coroner, Frances Kirkham, called for a simplification and clarification of Approved Document B, the “difficult to use” building regulation that governs the fire safety of high-rise towers. She said it must provide clear guidance “with particular regard to the spread of fire over the external envelope of the building and the circumstances in which attention should be paid to whether the proposed work might reduce existing fire protection.” The document was last updated in 2006.
• She asked for the document to be “expressed in words and adopt a format which is intelligible … and not just to professionals who may already have a depth of knowledge of building regulations and building control matters”.
• That the advice given to high-rise tower residents to “stay put” and call 999 in the event of a fire should be consolidated and updated.
• That assessors should inspect the interior of a sample of flats in high-rise buildings to make sure they are compliant.
• Councils should consider the retrofitting of sprinklers.
Was anything done? In response to the coroner’s points, the then-communities secretary, Eric Pickles, replied to say that his department was “committed to a programme of simplification” on building regulations. But, he added, “the design of fire protection in buildings is a complex subject and should remain, to some extent, in the realm of professionals.”
A new version of Approved Document B was promised in 2016/17. The government said it would investigate the use of sprinklers and would update this document accordingly.
Sprinklers are only required on English buildings taller than 30 metres and built since 2007. In Wales they are required on all new and converted homes and in Scotland they are required on buildings over 18 metres.
2010: The Shirley Towers fire in Southampton, in which two firefighters died
What happened? A fire broke out in Shirley Towers after someone on the ninth floor of the 15-storey building left a curtain resting on a lamp. Two firefighters were overcome by the fire and died.
Any recommendations? Cladding wasn’t implicated in spreading the fire – but as with the Lakanal House inquest, the coroner presiding over the Shirley Towers inquests, Keith Wiseman, said high-rise buildings should seriously consider fitting sprinklers.
“Social housing providers should be encouraged to consider the retrofitting of sprinklers in all existing high-rise buildings in excess of 30 metres in height,” he said.
Was anything done? It took the Grenfell disaster to finally prompt it, but on 21 June Southampton City Council announced it would retrofit sprinklers in all the towers it owns and manages.