Deadly London apartment blaze highlights fire safety issues

Jason Van Steenwyk
Jason Van Steenwyk | 12 min. read

Published on July 11, 2017

The Grenfell Tower Fire: What Happened?

From June 14 to 17, a deadly blaze ravaged the 24-story Grenfell Tower, a government-owned apartment building in an affluent London borough. The ongoing search, recovery, and identification process means that an official death toll may not be released for quite some time. However, independent sources believe that the number of fatalities from the Grenfell Tower fire is at least 80 people, and possibly as high as 103, with at least 70 reported injuries. Police have been unable to locate any survivors from 23 of Grenfell Tower’s 129 units, and at this point are presuming that those occupants are among the victims.

The Grenfell Tower fire broke out in the middle of the night. Fire crews were called to the site at around 1 AM, but the blaze was already burning out of control. Debris falling from the building forced officials to evacuate nearby buildings, and it was initially feared that Grenfell Tower might collapse. Television images captured people waving towels and flags from windows, trying to catch the attention of rescuers.

Fire officials opened a dedicated 9-9-9 line for the incident (the UK version of 9-1-1) to allow people trapped inside the Grenfell Tower fire to request rescue. They also opened up the Westway Sports Centre, a nearby athletic complex, to take in those made homeless by the fire and other evacuees. A nearby church, the Tabernacle Christian Center, opened up as a site to receive donated supplies and other assistance.

What Should Property Managers Learn from the Grenfell Tower Fire?

The Grenfell Tower fire should be a lesson to all residential and hotel building managers. The building’s managers, the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea Tenant Management Organisation (KCTMO), have been criticized for years for inadequate attention to fire safety.

One potentially life-saving lesson: Planners may need to revisit procedures that call for occupants in burning high-rises to stay in their rooms and keep doors and windows shut, unless their own flat is ablaze. The assumption is that modern fire-rated doors, walls, and windows are sufficient to contain an apartment fire until first responders can contain the blaze.

This has been standard advice among fire experts going back to the 1950s. However, as the catastrophic Grenfell Tower fire shows, this is not necessarily the case.

On the #BuildiumBlog: What property managers should learn from the Grenfell Tower Fire. Click To Tweet

Concerns Raised by Residents Long Before Grenfell Tower Fire

Residents and critics of Grenfell’s building managers had been sounding the alarm on Grenfell Tower fire safety deficiencies for years. “The Grenfell Action Group has a long history of raising concerns about the almost criminally lax manner in which the KCTMO treats fire safety issues,” wrote the Grenfell Action Group, a tenants’ interest organization, on their blog as far back as 2013. The post continues, “We are on record as stating that it is our belief that a serious and catastrophic incident will be the undoing of this mini mafia who pose as a bona fide organisation responsible for the smooth running of the RBKC’S social housing.”

The councilors’ response: A legal demand that the Grenfell Action Group take down the blog detailing their complaints.

In a 2014 email to Kensington’s chief fire officer, a GAG member reported concerns that the ongoing renovation efforts were turning Grenfell Tower into a ‘fire trap.’ The email stated:

“There is only one entry and exit to the tower block itself and, in the event of a fire, the London fire brigade could only gain access to the entrance to the building by climbing four flights of narrow stairs. On top of this, the fire escape exit on the walkway level has now been sealed. Residents of Grenfell Tower do not have any confidence that our building has been satisfactorily assessed to cope with the new improvement works.”

Among their specific concerns—raised long before the Grenfell Tower fire:

  • No functioning emergency lighting
  • A single escape route out of the building, which was a stairwell with no natural light
  • Hoarding and clutter in communal areas (and no doubt within the dwellings themselves)
  • Power surges that caused appliances to explode, a point of concern for residents since at least 2013
  • Gas pipes installed in main stairwells without fire-rated protection
  • No internal or external sprinkler systems were installed
  • Parked vehicles blocking emergency vehicle access zones
  • Fire extinguishers that hadn’t been tested for years
Grenfell Tower Fire Highlights Fire Safety Issues | Buildium
A snapshot from Grenfell, showing flammable debris allowed to accumulate in public areas. Photo credit: Grenfell Action Group

Multiple residents complained that their appeals to the Board of Directors for an independent building fire safety review were declined. Even concerned board members weren’t taken seriously—one former chairman of KCTMO actually resigned several years ago because of his concerns about how the building was being run. “I was treated like I was a nuisance,” said Judith Blakeman, a local councilor and another KCTMO board member. “I raised 19 complaints on behalf of individual residents. Every single time we were told that the board had satisfied itself that the fire safety was fine.”

Grenfell Tower Fire: ‘A Disaster Waiting to Happen’

Analysts are now looking into Grenfell Tower’s cladding, which recently received an £8.6 million renovation. KCTMO’s contractors used non-combustible glass-reinforced concrete (GRC) panels on Grenfell Tower’s ground floor. However, to cut costs, insulation panels on all upper floors were clad with aluminum composite material (ACM) instead—which contained a flammable polyethylene core. Using these cheaper panels may have saved KCTMO over £1 million—but fire safety experts believe they may also explain why flames were able to travel up the building’s façade so quickly.

Meanwhile, as of June 22, at least 11 other British high-rises have been revealed to have the same flammable polyethylene insulation.

“A disaster waiting to happen” is how architect and fire expert Sam Webb describes hundreds of tower blocks across the United Kingdom in the aftermath of the Grenfell Tower fire. He explains, “We are still wrapping postwar high-rise buildings in highly flammable materials and leaving them without sprinkler systems installed, then being surprised when they burn down.”

Webb points to the deadly Lakanal House fire, a 2009 tragedy that killed 6 people in the 14-story UK apartment building. Fire officials traced the blaze’s cause to a faulty television set in a 9th floor flat. In that fire, the exterior cladding burned through in just four and a half minutes as the fire spread both horizontally and vertically. A series of poorly executed renovations had removed fireproofing materials in the walls and floors separating flats from one another.

“We really are forgetting the lessons of the past,” said Jim Glocking, technical director of the Fire Protection Association. “I think the inexcusable element here is that with cladding or insulation there are choices. There will be a perfectly good non-combustible choice that can be made, but somebody is not making those calls. It’s a tragedy that long-awaited changes to regulations usually only happen after significant loss of life.”

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He has a point. Among the lessons of the past:

  • In 2014, a fire raced through 7 floors of the 20-story Lacrosse Docklands building in Melbourne, Australia. A building construction director and fire safety engineer faced disciplinary hearings for violating the Victoria Building Code by improperly installing Chinese cladding.
  • A 2015 fire in Azerbaijan that killed 16 people and injured 75 was blamed in part on cheap external cladding. Burning polyurethane filling produced toxic gases that overwhelmed residents trying to escape.
  • In 2015, the Dubai Torch Tower was the tallest residential building in the world, measuring 1105 feet and 79 stories. A fire consumed the building’s external cladding and spread rapidly from the 50th floor to the top of the tower.
  • In 2012, cladding provided combustible material to fires at the Al Tayer Tower in the UAE, the Mermoz Roubaix in France, and the Polat Tower in Istanbul.
  • In 2010, 7 residents were killed as flames raced up the exterior of a residential building in Dijon, France. This building had an EIFS system with EPS insulation and mineral wool fire barriers.
  • A 2009 apartment fire in Hungary consumed the building’s external cladding from the 6th to the 11th floors and killed 6 people. The building’s façade was renovated in 2007 to add a combustible polystyrene insulation layer. An investigation found that there was no mineral wool fire barrier installed in the building’s window openings, which contributed to the spread of the blaze. In addition, the building’s ventilation shafts had been poorly designed, allowing smoke from the outside cladding to get into the apartments above the fire.
  • 58 people were killed when a 28-story residential building in Shanghai caught fire in 2010, and the blaze spread rapidly across the building’s exterior.
  • EPS insulation is blamed for the spread of a Berlin apartment fire in 2005, which killed 2.
  • In a 2008 shipyard fire in the Netherlands that killed 3 firefighters, polyurethane insulation provided the primary fuel for the spread of the fire.
  • The CCTV Tower in Beijing, China ignited in 2009, and the fire spread quickly across the building’s exterior, which was insulated with extruded polystyrene (XPS) insulation. The fire was likely sparked by nearby fireworks.
  • A 2012 Dubai blaze at the Tamwheel Tower was started by a cigarette that ignited a pile of trash outside the building. The fire consumed flammable building cladding all the way up to the roof.
  • In 2013, a fire at the 40-story Grozny City Complex ignited exterior cladding on one whole side of the building. The apartments, located in Chechnya, were fortunately unoccupied at the time.
  • A 1999 Scotland apartment fire killed an 80-year-old man who had already survived a fire in the same building the previous year. Authorities named flammable cladding as a factor in this fire as well. Scotland subsequently changed housing regulations to require fire-resistant exterior cladding on high-rise buildings.

Construction and engineering experts have published a number of guides warning of the potential dangers of combustible wall assemblies and cladding materials, such as this review of available literature from Springer Nature.

So it’s not as though no one was aware of the problem prior to the Grenfell Tower fire.

Crisis Management and Communications Lessons from the Grenfell Tower Fire

Property managers would do well to learn from the failed crisis management and communication efforts of the Kensington and Chelsea Tenant Management Organisation. Following the Grenfell Tower fire, KCTMO was quick to get a statement up on its website that accomplished 3 important crisis management objectives:

  • Get the CEO on record as heartbroken and working hard to support residents during the crisis
  • Publicize the locations of respite and aid centers so the media can amplify them
  • Establish a single point of contact for media inquiries

This wasn’t KCTMO’s first rodeo, after all. They had the opportunity to practice fire incident communications as recently as April, when a fire hit another KCTMO-managed building.

KCTMO also issued a second statement later in the day, expressing condolences for the victims of the Grenfell Tower fire and recognizing the bravery of the first responders. The company also included this passage: “We are aware that concerns have been raised historically by residents. We always take all concerns seriously and these will form part of our forthcoming investigations. While these investigations continue with our cooperation, our core priority at the moment is our residents.”

UK Government Reacts to the Grenfell Tower Fire

Prime Minister Theresa May has directed a formal government inquiry into the cause of the Grenfell Tower fire and how future fires can be prevented.

However, members of Parliament are not content with an investigation: At least one MP is referring to the Grenfell Tower fire—and the possible negligence of building managers—as “corporate manslaughter,” and is calling for criminal prosecutions.

Since then, authorities have evacuated residents from 700 flats in London’s Chalcots complex—an apartment building that was refurbished by Rydon, the same company that worked on Grenfell Tower.

Painful Insurance Lessons from the Grenfell Tower Fire

While we await the results of the official government inquiry, if investigators confirm that ACM cladding is in part to blame for the casualties of the Grenfell Tower fire, the subcontractor that installed it won’t be around to assume liability. Harley Facades went bankrupt in 2014.

This brings up an important lesson for building managers and owners in the United States: Pay close attention to construction defect liability insurance. Coverage should extend to events that may occur years after the construction, and should ideally include tail coverage that will remain in force—even if a key contractor or subcontractor should go bankrupt in the interim.

Read it on the #BuildiumBlog: What property managers need to know about the Grenfell Tower Fire. Click To Tweet

To learn more about the course of action that landlords and property managers should take in the event of a fire, read this post: After a Rental Property Fire: The 10 Steps Landlords Need to Follow.

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Jason Van Steenwyk

Jason is a freelance writer and editor, as well as an avid fiddler. His articles have been published in a number of real estate publications including Wealth and Retirement Planner and He lives in Fort Lauderdale, FL with his cat, Sasha, and an unknown number of musical instruments.

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