Grenfell fire chief admits failing to examine cladding on visit to tower year before blaze killed 72 people

Michael Dowden says blaze was out of his 'comfort zone'

Grenfell fire chief Michael Dowden says he didn't look at cladding on safety visit

A firefighter in charge of the response to the Grenfell Tower blaze has admitted failing to check the tower’s cladding on a visit to the building in 2016.

Michael Dowden, who was the watch manager with North Kensington Red Watch on 14 June last year, made the confession while giving evidence at the public inquiry into the disaster.

Mr Dowden also said prior to the deadly blaze he could not recognise a cladding fire and revealed he had received no training in evacuating a highrise building with a stay-put policy.

Most highrise towers are designed so fires are contained in the flats in which they start, but this did not happen at Grenfell Tower, where 72 people died.

The London Fire Brigade’s (LFB) failure to abandon stay-put advice to residents for nearly two hours has been criticised for contributing to the death toll.

Monday’s evidence session ended earlier than scheduled after Mr Dowden said he was not able to carry on giving evidence. He had been questioned for at least four and a half hours.

Chairman Sir Martin Moore-Bick said he was concerned Mr Dowden was finding the inquiry a “difficult exercise” and the probe should consider allowing him to give evidence in a different way on Tuesday, when the questioning is set to continue.

During the hearing, Mr Dowden said he carried out a familiarisation visit to the site while it was undergoing refurbishment in the summer of 2016.

Counsel to the probe Richard Millett QC questioned him on whether Grenfell Tower satisfied fire safety regulations known as 7(2)d.

Mr Millet referred the firefighter to a point in the guidance that says: “Information to be gathered in relation to highrise incidents should include: construction features, such as the presence and location of maisonette style construction, sandwich panels, timber framing, cladding systems, surface mounted trunking, ducting and voids, in addition to features which present a specific hazard, such as asbestos.”

He asked Mr Dowden whether he had examined the cladding.

“That’s something I didn’t look at, I wasn’t aware of … having known what I know now that’s something I would have looked at, without a doubt,” the firefighter responded.

The issue was one of a number of points in the risk assessment Mr Dowden said he did not check or could not remember checking.

Earlier, Mr Millett asked: “On your visit, did you make an assessment for what those evacuation procedures for Grenfell Tower were?”

He replied: “I cannot recall that I did, no.”

Grenfell fire chief Michael Dowden had no training to reverse 'stay put' policy

The inquiry’s lawyer continued: “On the subject of evacuation, on your visit did you find out what the standing advice to residents was in the case of a fire?”

Mr Dowden again said it was something he could not recall.

Mr Millett then asked if Mr Dowden had established whether the building owner had informed residents of the advice, to which he replied that he had not.

“Did you investigate if there was persons in that block whose grasp of English obstructed that advice,” Mr Millett continued.

Again Mr Dowden said: “I cannot recall.”

It has previously been suggested victims of the blaze were unable to fully understand the fire evacuation policy because they had difficulty understanding English.

The only aspects of Grenfell Tower Mr Dowden said he could only remember inspecting on the 2016 visit were the floor plans and the dry rising main – a pipe that can be connected to a pressurized water source by firefighters.

He said he did not inspect every element highlighted by the risk assessment “because a lot of that information should already be there – the expectation is it should be there”.

Only when a building is first constructed should every part of the risk assessment be completed, he said.

Mr Millett questioned the firefighter about cladding fires, asking: “As of June 2017, do you think you would be able to identify a cladding fire if you saw one?”

Mr Dowden replied: “No, I wouldn’t be able to identify a cladding fire because I didn’t know at that point that (combustible material) was being used as a cladding material.”

In July 2016, the LFB stressed the “need to understand what products are being used in the facade system and their fire behaviour”.

Mr Dowden said he believed he read about the warning in a local newspaper, but had not learned any more about it while at work.

The inquiry lawyer read through parts of national policy guidance from February 2014 called “Generic risk assessment 3.2: fighting fires in high rise buildings”, asking the firefighter if he had specific training on certain points.

Mr Dowden said he was not aware of the document’s existence.

One point in the risk assessment says: “Incident commanders should understand when a partial or full evacuation strategy might become necessary in a residential building where a stay-put policy is normally in place.”

Asked if, as an incident commander, he had received training on such an issue, Mr Dowden replied: “As an incident commander I cannot remember any time I have actually been on a training course that would facilitate that.”

Mr Moore-Bick asked: “Did anyone give you any help or advice in understanding when it might be necessary to have a full evacuation, things to look out for, or was it just down to your personal experience?”

He replied: “I don’t think I’ve had any input from any individual, the only way I could relate to that is reference back to our internal highrise policy, particularly around when compartmentation fails etc, but I don’t think I’ve been in a training environment when that’s been referenced.”

Mr Millett asked if it would be fair to say that training was “a lot about what the policy contained but you weren’t trained in how to implement it”.

Mr Dowden replied: “I would say that is a fair comment.”

Mr Millett asked the firefighter: “Mr Dowden, did you ever receive training on the evacuation of people from the upper floors of highrise buildings who may have mobility difficulties?”

Mr Dowden responded: “Not on the practical application but more theory-based.”

In a report submitted to the inquiry, fire safety expert Dr Barbara Lane said the stay-put policy had failed about 30 minutes after the fire broke out and there was “an early need for a total evacuation of the tower”.

The fire started just before 1am in the kitchen of a flat on the fourth floor and broke out of the apartment, ignited the cladding around the outside of the building, and reached the 23rd floor within half an hour.

“I consider the stay-put strategy to have effectively failed by 1.26am,” she wrote. But the guidance was not abandoned until 2.47, by which time the tower’s single staircase was filled with thick, toxic smoke, according to evidence examined by Dr Lane.

Mr Dowden, who has been a firefighter for 14 years and is responsible for training junior officers, said on Monday it was difficult to organise practical highrise firefighting training because of a lack of suitable buildings in which to perform the exercises.

“It’s very difficult particularly at North Kensington to actually do a a practical based highrise drill so for me I would generally facilitate the highrise training through more of a theory-based input.”

Mr Dowden said he had not received training to teach other officers.

He said “No” when asked: “Was anybody supervising you when giving lectures?”

The firefighter said he could only test how well junior officers had learned new skills when they were at the scene of an incident, which is also known as the fireground.

The inquiry lawyer said: “Leaving it to the fireground of an actual incident? Might that not be a bit late?”

“I suppose, yes,” replied the fire officer.

In a written statement, Mr Dowden said the fire quickly moved outside of his “comfort zone” as an incident commander.

He wrote: “We were really aggressive with the fire at Grenfell Tower in that we initially plugged our hose in on the fire floor, because the conditions were OK to do so, and the initial crew made good progress on the compartment fire in flat 16. After about 20 minutes, I could see that something had failed to make the fire react as it did.

“When I saw Grenfell Tower behaving like this, I was quickly outside my comfort zone, and was trying to make decisions that I have not made before. Although I have previous experience in highrise firefighting, I have never seen a fire behave in this way. It was totally unprecedented.”

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

The probe is set to continue hearing evidence from Mr Dowden from 9.30am on Tuesday.

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