I was a firefighter at Grenfell Tower. Here's the truth behind the myths

As politicians and celebrities were making wild allegations about cover-ups, a colleague of mine was attending Grenfell in the aftermath and watching a forensic archaeologist who had spent two hours that morning sifting through ash, trying to reconstruct one small part of a jawbone

Tony Sullivan
Wednesday 06 November 2019 15:21 GMT
Former firefighter Tony Sullivan who was at Grenfell Tower explains 'the truth behind the myths'

I attended the Grenfell Tower fire as a firefighter in a relief crew long after the fire originally started, and I have since retired. I wasn’t present during the earliest stages, although I have many friends and colleagues who were. And I’ve decided to speak out primarily because I find the conspiracy theories and insults on all sides in the aftermath of the fire particularly distressing.

I have attended dozens of high-rise fires in my 31 years as a London firefighter. The number of blocks I’ve visited or conducted inspections on probably number in the hundreds. I spent nine years teaching, among other things, high-rise procedure to new recruits.

The “stay put” policy has been in for a lot of criticism since Grenfell, with claims that it led to the deaths of residents and that firefighters continued to give bad advice even after it was “obvious” that fire was being spread across the building by cladding. Since then, some residents in domestic houses have contacted the fire service to ask if we want them to stay put (no we don’t). Occupants of high-rise flats have wondered if “stay put” is no longer policy (it is).

In fact, the “stay put” policy is the only thing that can work routinely in a residential high-rise building, and here is why.

The building is designed to contain fire in each individual flat and for the stairways especially to remain clear of smoke and heat. This is why it is vital all doors are fire doors and closed in the event of fire (which also means working door closers and smoke seals on all doors are essential).

If everyone were to evacuate around the same time, opening doors as they did so, this would immediately compromise the fire safety of the building. Aside from all the crush injuries, if all residents opened all their doors and the doors to the stairwell at the same time, heat and smoke would intrude into the only escape route. This could create a chimney effect, spreading fire, and result in loss of life. Quite simply, moving away from a “stay put” policy will kill people.

This is why you are not allowed integrated alarms or communal fire alarms in nearly all residential high-rise buildings. You aren’t supposed to hear alarms because you aren’t supposed to evacuate. Only the flat affected is supposed to evacuate. This is also why there were no fire drills at Grenfell. There shouldn’t be.

After Grenfell, there were multiple comments from residents and politicians about the lack of smoke alarms. They are obviously unaware that these buildings are not allowed such alarms and if they were found to be present by a fire safety inspector they would likely be ordered to remove them. The local authority guidance on fire safety in residential high-rise buildings details this.

The flats themselves shouldn’t have a linked alarm system because the fire brigade use the stairs as a means of access for personnel and equipment and it would be impractical and dangerous for 300 people to be coming down the stairs while we are fighting the fire. The sheer amount of hose and other equipment makes this problematic.

So what specifically went wrong at Grenfell, and why did supposedly safe procedures fail? Imagine yourself in that scenario: there’s a fire on the fourth floor of a huge high-rise building, and residents on the eighteenth floor could see the fire spreading upwards. It might seem obvious to tell them to evacuate. However, this is totally dependent on the conditions in the corridors and stairway.

Many readers will have stood too close to the oven door and recoiled away from 200 degrees centigrade. The temperature in the upper floors that night were many times that. On the very top floors, temperatures may well have been above 1000 degrees. And when the lobbies, corridors and several flights of stairs are filled with thick black smoke, then how can you advise people to “make a run for it”?

There were no means of communicating with residents. There were no means of warning them because there wasn’t an integrated alarm system. If they opened their doors and were confronted with 400 or 600 degree heat, then no amount of wishful thinking from armchair amateurs would change the conditions. If people’s door handles are too hot to touch, they won’t open the door in the first place. If there’s thick black smoke outside their flat, many won’t go through it.

When a “stay put” policy begins to be compromised, we can’t immediately advise people to leave their flats and enter several floors of several hundred degrees centigrade.

If you know crews in full fire gear and breathing apparatus are struggling to get through several floors of heat and smoke, how will residents get down? At that point, no rescuer was able to do anything. The only thing you could have done was to prevent the fire from spreading outside the original flat in the first place.

Am I being too defensive here? I’ve considered it in my mind since that night: maybe there was a window of opportunity. Maybe mistakes were made. Maybe – but it doesn’t feel likely.

In a high-rise fire, a bridgehead – a safe space for firefighters to gather inside the building – should be set up two floors below the fire. Then a crew wearing breathing apparatus uses a dry riser outlet – a pipe which is permanently connected to the building at all times and which the fire crew can attach their hose to. A back-up crew should then use the outlet on the fire floor to supply a second hose. And that’s just the procedure to attack the initial fire in the first flat. That’s what was attempted at Grenfell.

To consider evacuating other floors, we need enough crews in breathing apparatus early on – perhaps two crews for each floor. At Grenfell, that would have meant 40 crews. It takes time to get that number of personnel there.

Let’s not forget that firefighters broke many procedures in order to rescue people on the night of the Grenfell Tower fire. There were 65 rescues in total. All the following would be against the rules, but firefighters did them: going above the fire without breathing apparatus to knock on doors and get people out; attempting snatch rescues without breathing apparatus; going above the fire without a hose and sufficient water; going past the time of whistle and into your safety margin of the last 10 minutes on your breathing apparatus; taking your mask off in a job and putting it on a casualty’s face; multiple wears and entries with breathing apparatus; carrying an adult casualty alone; carrying more than one casualty at a time.

In my 31 years, I have witnessed all this and more. I know many examples occurred at Grenfell. The Chief Officer has already acknowledged this and stated she will back crews and their decisions.

Rumours started very early on about the numbers of people who had died in the fire at Grenfell. While it’s understandable when people are in a state of shock and grief, the police said in the first few days they hoped the numbers wouldn’t reach triple figures. There are some simple reasons why numbers weren’t immediately released or estimated by emergency service personnel like us.

In the early stages of a fire, it is impossible to have an accurate list of people staying in a block. People move in and out, have children, children go to university, move out, have friends round, get divorced, start living together, have guests, go on holiday. And that’s before we take into consideration any subletting.

Quite a lot of blocks in London have at least one person subletting. Grenfell may have had none or two or 10 – we couldn’t know for sure, and especially not while putting out an all-consuming fire. The simple fact is that, outside some sort of extreme social control or a heavily policed clocking in and out system, it’s impossible to know accurate numbers of occupants. In the incidents I have attended throughout my career, we have never had a full list of occupants for blocks of flats and never needed it. At Grenfell, we didn’t know how many people were inside but we rescued as many as we humanly could.

I am afraid I will have to be blunt. It is possible to count people who you know live there and for whom you have remains. You can count people who you know lived there, who are missing and for whom you have no remains. You can even count people who you can’t identify but for whom you have remains. One victim of the Kings Cross fire in 1987 remained unidentified until 2004. What you can’t do is count people who aren’t registered there, when no one is coming forward and claiming they are there, and for whom there are no remains or recoverable DNA.

As politicians and celebrities were making wild allegations about cover-ups, a colleague of mine was attending Grenfell in the aftermath and watching a forensic archaeologist who the police had brought in working on the upper floors. She had spent two hours that morning sifting through ash, trying to reconstruct one small part of a jawbone or arm. The amount of time and effort that hundreds put in trying to recover and identify victims and remains was enormous. The idea that hundreds of firefighters, police, ambulance staff and others weren’t trying their best or were willingly engaged in some vast conspiracy is as ludicrous as it is offensive. An apology from those making wild claims would be appropriate.

I’ve seen people online claiming that there was a conspiracy because they saw hundreds of body bags at the scene (you would expect to see body bags delivered to a major incident). One gentleman was convinced the presence of black vans to remove bodies in the early hours was evidence of wrongdoing. He found it hard to believe it is routine for police to organise a coroner or local undertaker to transport bodies. I’ve been at more than one fatal fire or car crash when a van arrives to transport a body. What type of van or vehicle does he expect to be used for such purposes?

Another cited the closing of the railway line as part of a conspiracy, but this is actually normal procedure to keep people safe. Others quoted firefighters, not realising most firefighters would have been as prone to rumours and speculation as everyone in the early stages. Those in the building attempting rescues were working in zero visibility and only saw one small part of the incident. We, like other onlookers, were both literally and figuratively in the dark about numbers of people during and directly after the Grenfell Tower fire.

Which brings me on to the even more ridiculous and offensive allegations of potential racism from one of the barristers at the inquiry. Firstly there were people of many different colours and cultures living at Grenfell. Likewise, many of the firefighters also had a range of backgrounds.

Secondly, you can’t see colour in a fire. You generally can’t see your hand in front of your face. Not only did the firefighters perform 65 rescues but there were many instances of extraordinary bravery and the “bending” of procedures to do so.

As an ex-union rep, I deplore the closing of fire stations and removal of fire engines and I sympathise with people who think that there was a failure to provide proper equipment to Grenfell – but it doesn’t appear to be a significant factor in this case. Let me explain why.

Our current aerial platforms reached to the 13th floor of Grenfell Tower. There are larger ladders in the world that could have reached the top floor. Unfortunately, it’s unlikely you would get a ladder that tall near the base of the tower, less likely you would have the space for the jacks, and impossible to manoeuvre it through the streets of London to get it there. That’s even if we have a fire station big enough to house it. So we didn’t have anything taller to hand.

Nor can we direct jets from the ground floor to the top of a 20-storey building. The laws of physics prevent us. But we shouldn’t need any of this in the first place, because we fight high-rise fires from the inside, and that’s how we approached Grenfell. That’s why we have dry and wet risers, those permanent pipes that I mentioned earlier. And that’s why it’s so important compartmentalisation – keeping the fire inside the flat where it originally started – works.

If compartmentalisation fails to the extent and at the rate of Grenfell, then it becomes all but impossible to attack, let alone control. Similar comments about helicopters, airbags and all the other suggestions from well-meaning amateurs are equally impractical. The simple fact is the only way to fight a fire in a high-rise is the traditional way and that requires the building being used and maintained to the standard it was designed.

Concerning the role of the council and subsequent support: I don’t have much to say other than I’ll take the word of actual residents rather than any activists or politicians. However, in the last incident I attended that involved the local council and a social housing tenant, the first woman involved and her two children were rehoused in temporary accommodation in the adjacent borough. The other woman from the block was rehoused five miles from her former home and the children’s school. My impression, in other words, is there is difficulty in finding such accommodation for even one person. I imagine trying to rehouse families from the 129 flats all at the same time would be problematic for any council. I’ve never known private owner-occupiers or the majority of private tenants to do anything other than fall back on insurance or family and friends.

I’m not saying there shouldn’t be central government funding. Nor am I saying this isn’t a special case. But it’s simply inaccurate to claim they have been treated worse than others in that position.

Finally there is the report by Dame Hackett which mentions environmentally friendly panels that may have made the fire in Grenfell worse because of the materials they were built with. But consider this: steel loses two thirds of its structural strength at 600 degrees. It is in virtually every commercial building and many domestic extensions. We don’t ban steel. We regulate its use so that it must be covered by a certain level of protection, either plasterboard or concrete.

We drive around with 45 litres of petrol a few feet behind us. We have gas and electricity in our homes. We use timber, insulation and other materials in many different ways. Building regulations should be written in such a way that the effect is the same and these panels aren’t used on high-rise buildings. We really should be able to rely on the experience of architects, fire-safety inspectors and building engineers. It’s not listening to the concerns of such people over the past 30 years that has got us into this mess. We should listen to them now and not well-meaning but unqualified commentators.

The narrative that this is all the fault of one council, government, manufacturer or contractor is wrong. This doesn’t mean people or organisations aren’t guilty of negligence or worse over Grenfell. It just means that the issue is much bigger than even this terrible incident. It involves hundreds of buildings, across scores of councils and several governments over 20 years. It is a systemic problem with building regulations, fire-safety legislation, testing of materials, maintenance of blocks and enforcement agencies. The problem, however, is much bigger and won’t be resolved by sending someone to jail, even if that is appropriate.

Tony Sullivan refused payment for this piece

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