The SKWAWKBOX has covered many aspects of the Grenfell Tower disaster, from the closed emergency exits and gas shut-offs reported by firefighters to the superhuman efforts of crews who ran into an inferno time and time again; from the use of materials that had been reported as a deadly risk for years and the sham tests that let them pass, to a list of 41 questions that must be answered if police or a public inquiry are to get to the real facts needed for justice and to safeguard high-rise residents in future.
Now, thanks to testimony by firefighters who, for obvious reasons, cannot be named, the SKWAWKBOX can relate what should have happened that night were it not for government cuts – and that firefighters face potential disciplinary action for their diligence and dedication to duty on that terrible night in June.
What should have happened
The government has insisted that fire brigade appliances arrived on scene within expected target times – and this is true, as things stand now.
However – just as the government has tried to solve missed targets for NHS Accident and Emergency performance by lowering the performance targets – targets for the arrival of fire appliances have been changed to reflect the longer response times created by cuts to fire services and the types of appliance that have to attend have been downgraded.
A London Fire Brigade officer present at the fire told the SKWAWKBOX:
The first call to the brigade was at 00:54. Time of arrival of the first appliance was at 01:00 hrs.
Prior to the cuts of 2002 and the way they changed attendance time requirements to suggest that the cuts caused no delays to attendance, the first appliance would have had to arrive in 5 mins, the second within 8 minutes as the risk category of “B” for the old protocols in place before the changes was those timings.
The old CFBAC (Central Fire Brigades Advisory Committee) attendance times were as follows:
‘A’ risk: (city centres usually) 1st within 5 mins 2nd and 3rd within 8 minutes. Each A risk required 3 pumping appliances and where there was a high rise risk, the addition of an aerial appliance (turntable ladder or hydraulic platform – both about 30 metre reach).
‘B’ risk: 1st within 5 mins 2nd within 8 (again where high rise in place there was also an aerial within the PDA [Pre-Determined Attendance). Each B risk required 2 pumping appliances on the PDA.
‘C’ risk: One fire engine between 8 and 12 mins which in itself was a nonsense as if the sole appliance got there in 12 minutes it was within attendance time so for statistical purposes the 8 minutes was an irrelevance.
‘D’ risk: One appliance within 20 mins
Remote rural – Get there when you can
In the years after the 2002 strike and the changes to categories etc, they slowly reduced the amount of aerial appliances on PDAs and also the surrounding cover.
After the 2002 strike, the call from Blair was “modernisation” or in simple English “cuts”. The London Safety Plan decided that the 52 high rise blocks within, say, Acton’s ground could easily be covered by a single fire engine and not the two that were already there even though the neighbouring Chiswick and Park Royal fire stations had already been cut from 2 to 1 pumping appliances.
Had cuts not taken place, not only would a greater number of appliances have been present at Grenfell Tower more quickly, but they would have included a ladder with a 30m reach – the absence of which has already been flagged as a key weakness in the emergency response.
The blame does not lie merely with the Tory government, nor even with then-Mayor Boris Johnson, who cut deeper – and told London Assembly Members to ‘get stuffed‘ when they challenged his plans.
The cuts began under Tony Blair – and whole economic laissez-faire system is to blame, as Shadow Fire Minister Chris Williamson recently pointed out.
But that’s not the limit of the revelations. Firefighters have rightly been praised for their incredible bravery and dedication for the many hours it took to bring the fire under control – but they now have a disciplinary ‘sword of Damocles’ hanging over them for that dedication.
The disciplinary threat
A London firefighter told this blog:
It’s a requirement that fire crews are relieved after four hours as wearing BA [breathing apparatus] and climbing ladders and stairs in heavy and stifling protective equipment takes its toll.
The first crews to arrive at Grenfell [at 1am] got away just after 10:00 am and were ferried straight to Paddington Fire station to give statements for the obvious investigation that would follow such a major incident.
The Commissioner Dany Cotton gave assurances that all the many health and safety rules and established protocols that went out of the window that night would be subjected to an amnesty so that everyone could be up front and honest.
But the historic lack of integrity suggests that if something had gone badly wrong that amnesty would have evaporated and the truth of what happened is always going to be there to use as a stick to beat people if they step out of line in the future.
While there have been no overt threats made, everyone understands the inferences we’re meant to make.
So firefighters who went far ‘above and beyond the call of duty’ on the night of the tragedy could face future disciplinary action for exceeding their on-site limits and for bending or breaking safety protocols in order to save people who might otherwise have died in the blaze.
The terms of reference of the Grenfell Tower inquiry have now been published – and will include only the immediate circumstances of the fire, not the wider causes and context:
Even within these too-narrow terms, this information provided by firefighters at the scene needs to be taken into account in the inquiry’s conclusions.
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