Tower block owners refusing to fix fire risks are endangering lives, the UK’s most senior firefighter has said, as he admitted the London fire brigade let down the residents of Grenfell Tower.
Andy Roe, who took over as London fire commissioner in January following severe criticism of the LFB’s culture and response to the Grenfell disaster, took aim at the landlords and developers of thousands of high rise blocks, which more than three years on are still wrapped in dangerous cladding or contain other fire risks.
He said he felt able to call for faster action on the nationwide building safety crisis after initiating a retraining programme for over 1,000 incident commanders, which was put in place after the Grenfell Tower inquiry concluded the LFB’s response was “gravely inadequate” and displayed “serious deficiencies in command and control”.
Roe replaced Dany Cotton, who had angered Grenfell families when she told the public inquiry she would not have done anything differently, a remark that the inquiry chairman, Sir Martin Moore-Bick, said showed “remarkable insensitivity”.
Speaking at Old Kent Road fire station, where new 32-metre-ladder trucks capable of rescuing six people at a time were on show, he warned owners who are refusing to fix buildings found to have fire safety problems since the 14 June 2017 blaze: “You are putting people’s lives at risk.”
“Take your responsibility seriously,” he said. “If you have cladding on your building, work within the framework that is there to get it off as soon as possible. This is bigger than money. This about people’s lives, their mental and physical wellbeing. You will get my absolute support as London fire commissioner to do that.”
Latest government figures show 243 high-rise residential and publicly owned buildings still carry Grenfell-style cladding systems unlikely to meet building regulations in England, while there are estimated to be hundreds of thousands more apartments in buildings using other combustible cladding and with other fire safety defects.
Many householders have found their homes to be unsaleable as a result, as leaseholders and freeholders dispute over who should pay to fix them.
Roe said the risks posed a “significant challenge” to firefighters. But the LFB’s record has been strongly criticised too. In December 2019, just as Roe was promoted to assistant commissioner, HM Inspector of Constabulary and Fire and Rescue Services said the LFB was one of the worst in the country. It found it was “inadequate at getting the right people with the right skills” and sent commanders to fight blazes who had not been trained for five years.
Roe told the Guardian that the LFB had been in “denial about systemic issues” and said he had now embarked on a two-and-a-half-year retraining programme for commanders, including new training on cladding fires, which had not been delivered before Grenfell.
The 12 new ladder trucks, each costing close to £700,000, will be rolled out in the capital from Friday. The ladders can be erected almost three times faster than the current appliances and are more flexible in tight spaces.
He said the disaster “was foreseeable, but it wasn’t in the culture to anticipate it”, admitting “the fire brigade let those families down”.
Roe took command at Grenfell at 2.31am – 97 minutes after the fire started, and almost immediately ordered an end to the “stay put” policy and ordered an evacuation. If the incident commanders previously in charge had done the same lives would have been saved, the inquiry found.
“People were caught in the headlights,” Roe said. “I have the greatest sympathy for those officers because we had simply not prepared them for those circumstances and that is what we must do now.
“What I need to bring forward is a more confident cadre of officers who take decisions with discretion, knowing the organisation is going to back them – not being completely bound by policy and procedure – reacting intelligently to what’s in front of them.”
After its stinging criticism of the LFB, the Grenfell inquiry has this year been examining the refurbishment project that led to the council block being clad in plastic-filled panels and combustible insulation. Counsel to the inquiry, Richard Millett QC, has summed up the evidence of the corporate bodies as “a merry-go-round of buck-passing”. Roe was also critical of their approach.
“They should be ashamed,” he said. “Understand that 72 people lost their lives. Now is not the time to seek corporate defence, but actually give these families what they deserve which is the truth and an undertaking not to let history repeat itself.”