This fire is no surprise”: Thoughts from a firefighter on Grenfell Tower

June 30, 2017  •  Leave a Comment

In response to the London Tower fire I want to speak out. I want to applaud my colleagues of the London Fire Brigade who have performed above and beyond what can be expected. I want to applaud the people that came to help in the aftermath of the fire. I want to applaud the forensic teams who are now performing the horrific and painkilling task of recovering all human remains and identifying them.

On the other hand, I am disappointed and frustrated. As a firefighter who has had the job on the frontline for 17 years, I struggle with accepting that EU regulation and legislation has not been able to avoid such a predictable tragedy. On 16th of May of this year I participated in a hearing organized by the EU commission. The subject was whether further research was needed to determine the toxicity of smoke during a fire. Attendees questioned if deceased victims died from the smoke of the burning construction or from the burning contents of the building. As if it makes a difference? In my eyes, as a firefighter, this is a frightening way to look at human loss during domestic fires.

Many experts stated after the London Tower fire that they had never seen such fire behaviour nor could they explain it. Those who did see it before stated that these fires generally had none to very few victims. The fact that the experts are surprised seriously concerns me. This fire is no surprise. It was a ticking clock, it was question of time before this would become catastrophic. It is clear that the facade cladding and its insulation material played a crucial if not a dramatic role in the spreading of the fire. This type of dramatic fire spreading has been witnessed before. Simple and quick research on the internet resulted in the following little list:

14/11/2010 rue du Lac, Dijon, France. 7 victims.

A fire that started on the street in a garbage bin spread to the insulation material of a facade. Extremely rapidly the fire spread to the top of the building, nine floors up. This fire spread inwards into the building. On person jumped to his death, six other suffocated due to toxic smokes spreading inwards into the building. Over 140 people needed to be relocated after the fire.

14/05/2012 Tour de Mermoz, Roubaix, France. 1 victim.

A fire will start on the balcony of the second floor. In little over 5 minutes the fire spread over the outside of the building from the second floor to the top of the building, 18 floors up. 1 person will die in the fire and 2 will need to be hospitalized. All flats involved were internally destroyed by the fire. Over 250 people needed to be relocated. The fumes of the fire were pushed away from the building by the wind. This is likely a factor that played a role in the one side spreading of the fire since the fire travels through and with the the smoke. Simulations and research is needed to determine what would have happened with an other wind direction. This research has never been done. There are also no official reports to be found on what caused the fire and which materials were involved.

17/8/2015 Rue helene boucher, Villefrance, France.

A fire started on the outside of a building on ground floor level and will spread rapidly all the way to the top floor, 7 floors up. 20 people needed to be hospitalized due to smoke inhalation. The fire moved inwards into the building due to failing windows exposed to the heat.

29/9/2015 Montmarin, Vesoul.

Again a garbage bin on fire will ignite the facade insulation on the outside of a building. Thanks to rapid intervention by the fire department the fire is stopped in time. People living on the ground floor had to be relocated due to smoke damage.

Furthermore there are many fires in Dubai with similar behaviour. Fire spreading was rapid and was on the outside of the building.

The above is only a simple search on the internet, rapidly done. I can only imagine what would be the results if proper investigations and proper reporting was done.

As mentioned earlier, a couple of weeks ago I attended a hearing on smoke toxicity in modern fires. The questions asked and statements made were at times staggering. I witnessed the attitude on a legislative level that was responsible for the denial of the above fire behaviour. I can only guess which motivational reasons are behind this attitude. Misinformation is probably playing a role, but can only partly be blamed. During this meeting I made the following statement:

“A building fire? Can anyone in the room give me the definition of a building fire? Because to be honest, I don’t use the term building fire. I, as a professional firefighter, can’t tell you exactly what building fire is… I can tell you what a compartment fire is and I can tell you what a structural fire is. Those are the fires we train for and develop tactics and strategies for. Let me be blunt. A compartment fire, that is a single unit (one room, one apartment) on fire, is our job. We will tackle that fire. We will save the rest of the building and by doing so avoid unnecessary human loss and property loss. Inhabitants count on the compartmentation of a building as a passive safety strategy. The fire department counts on compartmentation to keep the fire contained and within achievable goals. Therefore, inhabitants can then count on the fire department to save them. It is your responsibility, as the legislative authority, to make sure that materials used will not weaken these compartments. Compartments should be unbreachable. They should not fail. That is the rule, that is the first line of protection. If the compartmentation fails the challenges faced are enormous and existing tactics and strategies go out of the window. We will likely lose the battle and won’t be able to save as many human lives and property as would have been possible.”

What I describe above has happened before. But the human loss has always been limited. Media attention soon turned away, if there was any. Proper investigations were not deemed necessary. Meanwhile, Firefighters were seeing this and getting very concerned.

What has happened in London was my worst fear. It was bound to happen, it is what I talked about during the meeting. I could never have guessed that my words would become truth with such a high loss of human life. I don’t believe those that are responsible for making regulation and legislation can imagine what it means to be trapped in a tower fire for over 8 hours. Smoke spreading, heat spreading, adults and children screaming for help or worse, people falling, burning debris falling, flames coming into the hallway… Slowly realizing that no help will come. In total despair throwing kids out of the window.

This fire behaviour was not unexpected due to the use of flammable materials in the renovation of the building. And these materials are used massively these days. This will happen again. It is our duty to face reality and to do thorough research into fire behaviour through full scale fire tests. As long as this is not done fire experts will have days where they have to say “we did not expect this, we do not understand this”. If this is true, then current testing of building materials is not sufficient. The loss from the London Tower fire was avoidable if proper testing had been done on current building materials. Specifically, those responsible for protecting and maintaining the compartments in a building. And this horizontally but above all vertically.

I hope lessons are learned from this fire. We cannot continue the way we are. We cannot refuse to search for the truth, the objective scientific facts, and to test to the level of true fire behaviour.

For a fire safer society!

Pieter Maes


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