Grenfell Tower: Fire officer in charge of response admits he was too junior to cope with blaze

Building’s dry-riser did not have enough pressure to reach higher floors, inquiry hears

Harriet Agerholm
Tuesday 26 June 2018 22:28
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Michael Dowden asks for a break in the Grenfell Inquiry as becoming upset

The response to the Grenfell Tower blaze was blighted by a series of issues including a chief officer who was too junior, and problems with pumping water to higher floors, the inquiry into the disaster has heard.

Michael Dowden – initially the most senior officer at the fire that killed 72 – admitted he was not qualified to cope with the size of the blaze, but said his superior was delayed getting to the scene.

The watch manager, who broke down in tears during his evidence as he was shown footage of the public shouting at residents to “get out”, also told the inquiry:

  • The building’s dry-riser – the pipe used to carry water to combat fires – did not have enough pressure to reach higher floors
  • Firefighters were forced to carry hoses to the top floors, allowing the only escape route to fill with smoke in the process
  • He thought it would have been impossible to completely evacuate the building during the fire on 14 June last year

Mr Dowden, who was incident commander until shortly before 2am, said he experienced “sensory overload” while standing at the base of the inferno.

Describing the chaotic scenes, Mr Dowden said firefighters were left with no choice but to trail a hose up the only staircase to reach the fire, propping doors open and so allowing smoke to spew into the tower’s only escape route.

After footage of the blaze was played, Mr Dowden wiped away tears and requested a 10 minute break. It came after Monday’s session finished early when he became overcome with emotion.

Decisions by senior fire officers that night have come under intense scrutiny after residents were ordered to stay in their flats for almost two hours.

The delay in ordering a full evacuation is feared to have contributed to the death toll.

Lead counsel to the inquiry Richard Millett QC asked Mr Dowden if he had considered evacuation at 1.19am, when it became apparent the fire was spreading.

He replied: “No ... at that moment in time, things are rapidly developing and it is a very, very dynamic situation.

“I was feeling very uncomfortable and at that point I wasn’t aware what was happening internally in the building.”

The officer described being “very consumed” by what was unfolding and said he experienced “sensory overload”.

He was then questioned about the state of the fire at 1.24am – half an hour after it began – when it had reached the block’s upper floors.

Mr Millett said: “Did you have any advice about the stay-put advice and whether it was safe advice to give if callers called?”

He replied: “Not at that point, but it is important to clarify that around that sort of time I only had six fire appliances in attendance, most of them were consumed in terms of [breathing apparatus] resources at the bridgehead.

“For me, at that moment in time, to facilitate and change a stay-put policy to a full evacuation is impossible.

“I didn’t have the resources at that time – we’re looking at 20 floors above the fire floor with just six fire engines in attendance; one central staircase.”

He said he did not decide that evacuation was “impossible” at the time, saying it was a “reflective thought”.

“I have had a lot of time to think and process the event which I didn’t have on that night. I was reacting in a way that I thought was best with all my previous experience in something I had never seen before.”

Mr Dowden told the inquiry he was not qualified to oversee fires that needed more than four fire engines. Four were initially sent to the scene, but two more were called shortly after 1am. Mr Dowden only stood down as incident commander shortly before 2am, by which time 25 fire engines had been requested.

A station manager is required to oversee a fire operation of more than four engines, but the one on duty on 14 June was delayed in getting to the scene due to road closures, according to a document submitted to the inquiry by the London Fire Brigade.

Mr Dowden told the hearing, which is chaired by retired judge Sir Martin Moore-Bick: “A watch manager B should be up to four pumping appliances, with a monitoring officer of a station manager rank.

“Once it goes beyond that – to six pumping appliances – the monitoring office at the rank of station manager will effectively take over. However, you have a degree of flexibility in that because of [problems with] officers getting to the incident ground.”

Mr Dowden also told the hearing on Tuesday that fire officers were unable to reach the top floors of the highrise because the water pressure would be “almost non-existent”.

The inquiry previously heard the dry-rise system used at Grenfell was not appropriate for a building so tall.

Building regulations recommend the system – which requires the fire service to pump water from the ground through a hollow pipe – should not be used in buildings rising over 50 metres. Grenfell Tower was 67 metres tall.

Mr Millett asked Mr Dowden: “What would happen after you get above 50 metres?”

He replied: “The water supply would be almost non-existent.”

Mr Dowden and his team plugged their hoses into two dry risers – one on the fourth floor and another on the third.

They blasted 230 litres of water a minute with each hose, but the fire quickly spread upwards.

Mr Millett asked the veteran firefighter of 14 years if he could have plugged hoses into every outlet to battle fires as they spread to other floors.

“That’s an almost impossible task… the dry-riser is not designed to do that,” he said.

The firefighters were left with “no choice” but to wedge a hose into the doorways to the building’s single staircase, leading to thick smoke seeping into the tower’s only escape route, he said.

Mr Millett asked whether the position of the water outlet could have affected the ”integrity of the single protected staircase in terms of whether it remained protected”.

“Yes,” Mr Dowden responded.

Mr Millett pointed to London Fire Brigade (LFB) policy 633, which warns firefighters against compromising escape routes.

Mr Dowden replied: “We only work with what we are given on the night. We have to have a water supply, we have to put water onto the fire, we can only work with the facilities that are given to us at that moment in time.”

Some residents of the tower fled their flats, only to later succumb to the toxic smoke that filled the stairway.

Mr Dowden is one of seven members of the LFB set to give evidence before the inquiry this week.

He will continue giving evidence at the inquiry at Holborn Bars at 9.30am on Wednesday.

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