I was approached by Sky news two days ago via twitter to give my take as a retired firefighter on the fire at Grenfell tower in West London. Unfortunately, due to technical difficulties on my side we were unable to carry out the interview live on TV so I thought I’d just give a little perspective as a retired firefighter in this blog.
As a serving firefighter, I have had to deal with a lot of blazes in high-rise blocks many times in my 25 year career and I can tell you now that at the Grenfell tower fire, crews were confronted by terrible scenes. The situation faced at Grenfell Tower in London would have been extremely difficult because the fire was able to spread so rapidly, and appeared to engulf nearly the entire building. Fire safety experts have already pointed to cladding on the building as a likely reason the blaze spread so quickly – making it impossible for the fire to be contained floor-by-floor. But as a well trained firefighter, you turn the last corner and see something like that in front of you and it makes you go into almost automatic pilot.
Normally firefighters arriving at the scene of a high-rise building fire would set up a base about two floors below the actual fire. This allows them to set up entry control points, so firefighters going to fight the blaze can be recorded, and crucially, have their breathing apparatus checked so it’s clear how much time they can spend in a dangerous, smoke-filled area. The amount of time each person can spend fighting the fire is limited by the amount of air available – so any minutes spent climbing up into a building with equipment is precious fire-fighting time wasted.
You’re going to use a considerable amount of air going up the 10 floors, so because of that and various other things, they will set up the control point two floors below the fire. Once they are able to go in, the immediate focus, if people are reported to be trapped in the building, would be on rescuing them, rather than firefighting, and the firefighters would carry minimum levels of equipment for that reason. They will have to fight their way in, in some instances, but they will take chances when people’s lives are at risk.
But because the fire was spreading so rapidly at Grenfell tower, for the firefighters to get 20 storeys up to rescue people in that situation is something special. Firefighters did eventually reach the top floor “but it took them hours to get there. It couldn’t have been quicker because without extra air supply for the person rescued, the journey back out of the building would be extremely dangerous. The firefighters on the scene would also have had to operate from a very low level in the building because of how far the blaze had spread, and there were concerns that the building might collapse.
My former colleague Dany Cotton whom is now the London Fire Brigade commissioner said the firefighters “didn’t waver. They were going through there time and time again battling through the floors looking for people. The thing that worries me going forward is the psychological effect. A lot of my firefighters yesterday experienced things they have never seen before. I spoke to some people who were truly distressed – not least because they knew there were people still in there and they were battling through the heat to get there. What happened [yesterday] truly traumatised a lot of people.”
I totally agree with her.