Grenfell Tower Fire Ignites Anger In London: Did Policies Fail Residents Of Outdated Public Housing? [Opinion]

Grenfell Tower in London served as home for about 600 residents, until a fire broke out just after midnight Wednesday, June 14. The horror that ensued during the midnight fire left many in London convinced that the tragedy could have been averted.

The Grenfell Tower fire will be an agonizing memory for London residents and leaders. The 24 story public housing tower, built in the 1970s had been nicely renovated in 2016, so what went wrong?

As London’s Grenfell Tower fire death toll rises, and thoughts turn to what could have been done differently, a young boy, among a crowd of 300 outside Notting Hill Methodist Church, boldly asked London’s Mayor Sadiq Khan a haunting question. The child’s words were quoted by the Sun.

“How many children died? What are you going to do about it?”

Could London Grenfell Tower fire have been averted, or could more people have been saved from the flames? Perhaps, in hindsight, it is easy to say that mistakes were made in London. Scotland Yard has opened a criminal investigation of the London Grenfell Tower tragedy according to the Guardian.

British Labor Party lawmaker David Lammy went further, calling the Grenfell Tower fire, “corporate manslaughter.” Mr. Lammy is quoted in the New York Times.

“Those ’70s buildings, many of them should be demolished. They have not got easy fire escapes. They have got no sprinklers. It is totally, totally unacceptable in Britain that this is allowed to happen and that people lose their lives in this way.”

Grenfell Tower is owned by the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea. Kensington and Chelsea own many tower blocks in London and hire management services to run them. The New York Times reported that the Grenfell Action Group, a residents’ association, had complained about fire hazards for years to no avail.

The Grenfell Tower fire, as fire minister Nick Hurd explained, will finally stir action to make housing safer in London.

“[There is] no room for cool, plodding bureaucracy.”

Three factors seem to be at the heart of the London Grenfell Tower tragedy; the policy of sheltering in place, flammable exterior insulation panels, and the absence of sprinklers and alarms. Each of those errors played a role in the deaths of at least 17 residents of Grenfell Tower.

The Grenfell Tower had no sprinklers or alarms, except individual smoke alarms for individual apartments. One of those was said to have gone off, hours after the fire was out of control on other floors.

When asked about London’s Grenfell Tower tragedy, Chancellor Nicholas Paget-Brown explained why the London building had never been retrofitted with sprinklers.

“We were told that what you try to do when you are refurbishing is to contain the fire in a particular flat. There wasn’t a collective view that all the flats should be fitted with sprinklers because that would have delayed and made the refurbishment of the block more disruptive.”

London's 24 story Grenfell Tower on fire

In 2016 Grenfell Tower was clad in insulated architectural panels. These panels seem to have allowed the fire to spread. The Guardian reported that these standard panels cost £2 per square meter less than a fire resistant panel of the same type. It was estimated that £5,000 was saved by using the cheaper panels. The panels used are banned in the U.S. according to The Times.

Could London’s Grenfell Tower fire have been controlled easily with better architectural panels? Architectural and engineering lawyer Matthew Needham-Laing told the New York Times that even if the materials were flame retardant, that’s not the same as fire proof.

“It looks to me like a cladding fire. [The material is usually] flame retardant, so it doesn’t catch fire as easily, but the temperatures you’re talking about are often 900, 1,000 degrees centigrade, and in those conditions, any material will generally burn.”

Grenfell Tower’s fire may have been caused by an electrical appliance according to an unsubstantiated statement by one resident according to the Guardian. The initial cause of the London high-rise fire is officially still unknown, but the rapid spread of the fire and the resulting death toll are what is of the most concern now.

Greenfell Tower Ablaze

The Grenfell Tower fire was handled under the standard London policy of sheltering in place, which means when a fire breaks out in one apartment unit, the neighboring units’ residents should stay put. This concept is currently being re-examined.

London Assembly Chairwoman of the Housing Committee Sian Berry is quoted in the New York Times, explaining why this instinct defying policy, that allegedly works in a newer building, could lead to disaster in a building like the Grenfell Tower.

“If you have good fire resistance between flats, there is less risk if you stay in place than if everyone runs out of the building at the same time. But this shouldn’t be applied in a hard and fast manner.”

Many Grenfell Tower residents were unaware of the fire until it was of a very advanced nature, and those who knew were informed by word of mouth between neighbors. London’s Grenell Tower had no fire alarms, no sprinklers and a single stairway in the center of the building as the only means of escape from the Grenell Tower, short of jumping from a window. Children were hurled out of windows, as high as ten floors to be caught by firemen.

A Justice for Grenfell rally will be held on Friday at 6 p.m. outside the Department for Communities and Local Government on Marsham Street. Over 1000 people are expected to attend the London rally for Grenfell Tower victims.

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London’s Grenfell Tower fire’s horrific aftermath may save lives in other housing blocks as London’s citizens demand tighter fire regulations.

[Featured Image by Matt Dunham/AP Images]