The Fire Sector Summit 2019 Review

29 November 2019

Opening this year’s London event in November, the FPA’s managing director Jonathan O’Neill remarked that the recommendations in the recent Grenfell Tower public inquiry first phase report were ‘much in line with expectations’, but added that the observations on fire and rescue service (FRS) management failures had ‘caused the greatest stir’. Nonetheless, the FRS should see them not as an attack but an opportunity to show it listens and learns, recognise changing risk profiles and ‘demand the resources to sort this out’. He called on those in power to review building regulations; mandate third party certification; ban single staircase escapes in tall buildings; install sprinklers and high integrity detection and evacuation measures; and ban combustible materials in every high risk occupancy. ‘This isn’t rocket science, so get on with it immediately please,’ he urged.

State of fire

Phil Loach of the National Fire Chiefs Council (NFCC) reported that the Hackitt review and first phase report had ‘sent shockwaves through the sector’. The latter stressed the need to transform, and the NFCC could help with improving risk management, protection, prevention and emergency response.

Also, NFCC is reviewing its 2017-2020 commitments in finance, governance, workforce, community risk assessment and digital solutions, ‘to bring consistency… whilst recognising and enabling the need for localism’.

While spotlighting NFCC’s fire safety work through enforcement, risk based high rise inspection, public reassurance and advice, Mr Loach emphasised how financial reviews affect fire sector priorities and ‘layers of prevention and protection’.

Future plans include extending the Digital and Data Programme to cover its other (People, and Community Risk) programmes and promote consistency, he explained, and further partnership working will help to influence wider engagement, approach and delivery.

Beechmere fire 

Mark Cashin, chief fire officer of Cheshire Fire and Rescue Service (CFRS), discussed the ‘large loss’ fire in Crewe this summer. The H shaped building had a large open central atrium, small independent living apartments and shared facilities, and was called a ‘care home on the cheap’ by a local MP. While internally ‘very high specification’, it was a sustainable ‘quick build’.

Stay put was quickly suspended by the CFRS officer in charge, ‘a good idea in the end’, because the fire started outside and entered the building, beginning on the roof where hot works were taking place – contractors tried to fight it for half an hour. It went through a protected staircase and dry riser ‘in less than an hour’, with compartmentation failing and ‘sudden and total collapse’ of the roof occurring within four hours. Eight hours in, the structure was still intact, but another ‘explosive’ spread saw fire present at all levels, with the structure lost 15 hours in.

CFRS ‘felt like we were chasing our own tails’, and were ‘frustrated that the building got away from us’ as it was ‘almost impossible to fight’. Investigations are looking at the construction’s effect on fire spread, with ‘lots of data to find’ that might help to understand why it ‘did not perform as expected’. If the fire had taken place in winter, ‘many may have died’. 

Smoke and toxicity

Ash and Lacy’s Dr Jonathan Evans, from the ‘more sensible end of the cladding industry’, shared views from within the metal cladding and roofing manufacturers association (MCRMA). Grenfell’s first phase report squarely points to the ‘principal reason’ for fire spread as the tower’s ACM cladding, highlighting that external walls failed to comply with Approved Document B (ADB) Section B4, and smoke hindered rescue and escape efforts. 

The focus needs to be on smoke control, he stressed, showing relevant paragraphs in the report summary on the loss of compartmentation and fire spread that were peppered with the word ‘smoke’. Describing problems with designing for smoke control – including resistance to regulation, insufficiency of the A2-s1, d0 requirement of Regulation 7, and the role of toxic smoke – he advocated a test to support graded classification, proof of smoke compartmentation, and the ability to analyse toxicity, debris and damage classification. 

Dr Evans encouraged industry to drive change, as government does not listen, ignoring criticism of Advice Notes and numerous warnings about Class 0 and composite materials, the toxicity of products such as polyisocyanurate (PIR), and high pressure laminate (HPL) testing. 

If smoke is not regulated, he warned, it ‘would be consistent’ for the government to reinstate BS 8414 after the review, while maintaining it had addressed shortcomings – ‘and with industry agreement’ – with no bar to manufacturers ‘flooding their products with chemical flame retardants to pass the test’. 

The solution? The FPA, MCRMA and University of Central Lancashire should develop their own BS 8414 version, augmented with smoke and toxicity testing, in which common combinations of materials could be benchmarked. 

Warehouse fires

Graham Atkinson of the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) explored toxic risks from warehouse fires, relating this to contaminations at Grenfell and Notre-Dame. With increasing public concerns over health risks, he asked ‘are they right?’, noting ‘we may have to consider this more in future’.

HSE has been assessing risks from chemical fires for ‘nearly 30 years’, and under the COMAH Regulations can ‘grant or withhold permission’ for storing toxic chemicals, and advise ‘for or against’ developments near sites. Identifying major accident hazards can help ‘assess the extent and severity’ of potential risks. There is also a legal responsibility to assess toxic fume risks, ‘motivate and guide’ improvements, and support a ‘let burn’ policy to ‘avert worse damage and risks’. 

It was ‘hard to prove there is not a risk posed by fumes’, and entirely possible to surmise a plume at Grenfell may have been 1km wide, 100m high and 290m long, though analyses are ‘excessively conservative’, and a ‘more realistic’ model was required.

Toxicity risks

Cambridge University’s Vitalina Chamberlain-Evans looked at toxicity health effects, the two types of which are acute, which harms quickly and can kill; and chronic, which causes long term problems. Fire toxicity is the ‘biggest cause of death and injury’, with carbon monoxide (CO) and hydrogen cyanide (HCN) common toxins. 

CO is naturally produced in the body, stored in muscles if there is too much, and removed in the lungs – over 30% concentration can kill, while 10 to 30% causes ‘reversible’ organ damage. HCN is 35 times more toxic, disrupts energy, kills cells and affects the brain.

Antibodies recognise and remember new molecules within the body, but the burning of manmade chemicals exposes us to molecules ‘not known to nature’. This means the body ‘can’t defend itself’, while chronic exposure can affect a body at all levels, even DNA – smoke particulates enter through the lungs and gut, can cause genetic changes and stay in the body ‘forever’ when absorbed by organs. 

Jim Fitzpatrick

Labour MP and former Fire Minister Jim Fitzpatrick addressed delegates on the day he retired, exploring his FRS and political experiences having joined London Fire Brigade in 1974. ‘Huge changes’ include ‘much better’ firefighter life expectancy, ‘improved’ standards of health and fitness and better legislation, alongside the ‘sea change’ heralded by breathing apparatus and the FRS’s ‘changing landscapes and roles’.

Following his election as MP for Poplar and Limehouse, while in government he set up the All Party Parliamentary Group for Fire, which has a ‘good profile and support across the parties’, and ‘leads the charge’ in trying to amend ADB. While Fire Minister from 2005 to 2006, the Regulatory Reform (Fire Safety) Order 2005 was put into law, which he called a ‘game changer’. 

For him, the government is ‘not keeping up and has to do much more to keep abreast’ of challenges posed by fire. He had the ‘greatest of respect’ for the sector, and added, ‘if we can work together, we can make the country a safer place’.

Closing comments

Reflecting on the valuable insights and discussions of the day, FPA chairman John Smeaton remarked that in theory a block of flats could be built today with the same regulations as before the Grenfell fire. Yet modern buildings react differently in fire to traditional ones, and sadly, ‘our building monitoring skills don’t match our passion for innovation’. 

He saw ‘a lot of weak words’ in the recommendations (eg the word ‘should’ needs replacing with ‘must’), and we must prioritise them, ‘as early change will deliver early results’, as well as defining ‘what is acceptable evidence as a deliverable to get the change we require.’