It is now 10 years after Penhallow, which has been described as “the worst British hotel fire for 50 years” and I think that it is important to look back at what we have learnt from this tragic failure of our fire safety laws.
To add to this we now have the Grenfell Tower Fire that will surely be the worst fire that the UK has seen in living memory.
I am also including some of the fire safety failures that I found during my recent undercover inspection of hotels in the South West for the BBC to illustrate the problem.
The Penhallow Hotel Fire 2007
For those who may have forgotten what happened this was an article that I wrote following the fire – The Penhallow fire: accident, arson or imcompetence?
The one part of this tragic incident that has remained with me over this period is this statement given by one of the witnesses at the inquest. She told the inquest how she saw one of the victims, 80-year old Joan Harper, trapped in her blazing room. She said that firefighters with just one engine and no firefighting ladder were to ill-equipped to come to the rescue. Describing the moment firemen did arrive at the scene, she is quoted as saying:
“Everybody was shouting at the fire brigade to save the lady, but they did not take any actions to save her…When I saw their single fire engine with one hosepipe, this just reinforced my despair. They did not have the capability to deal with the fire.”
Tragically, this was not the only fatality as Peter Hughes jumped from a third story window and his 86 year old mother Monica Hughes also perished.
At the inquest there were also many other factors that came to light including a poor fire risk assessment, poor access, lack of water, lack of equipment (high rise ladder) and the FRS (Fire and Rescue Service) being sent to the wrong address. Following this incident the FRS went around the country informing interested parties about this fire and when I asked them about aspects such as being sent to the wrong address they replied that “they had no knowledge of this” but these items are clearly in the inquest records both written and recorded.
The Grenfell Tower Fire 2017
Whilst obviously I cannot say a lot about this fire I think it is important to say that, if what has been reported in the media is true, then there are a number of similarities to the Penhallow Hotel Fire particularly in respect of people being trapped in the building and late arrival of a high rise ladder.
10 Years of Fires
So what have we learnt in the last 10 years as we are always informed following these tragic incidents “that we must learn from these tragic fires so they never happen again”. Clearly when we find out what happened in the Grenfell Tower Fire there does need to be some major changes and Brexit should give us the opportunity to make these changes but I wonder if the will and impetus is there to make the radical changes that in my opinion are needed.
Another important aspect that has come to light since the Grenfell Tower Fire is the subject of how we investigate serious fires and it is my view that I have stated many times that we need to establish a more robust, independent and open system that people can trust and respect.
The Regulatory Reform (Fire Safety) Order 2005
Whilst Fire Certificates issued under the Fire precautions Act had their drawbacks – I think that on balance it was a far better system than Fire Risk Assessments that in my opinion don’t really work. There are many reasons for this and one of them is how the legislation is enforced. Figures released to the Guardian under the Freedom of Information Act showed the number of specialist staff in 26 fire services had fallen from 924 to 680, a loss of 244 officers between 2011 and 2017.
Between 2011 and 2016, the government reduced its funding for fire services by between 26% and 39%, according to the National Audit Office, which in turn resulted in a 17% average real-terms reduction in spending power.”
Together with cuts to the FRS we have to look at how FRA are carried out and with no real standard assessment in place and poorly defined competency levels this was a recipe for failure.
I found these words from a very well respected hotelier during the BBC investigation very interesting:
“I wish that the old system of fire certification with annual inspection was still in place. The interesting thing here is that back in the 70’s/ 80’s each Fire Brigade interpreted legislation differently from area to area. The problem now is that consultants and operators interpret differently which of course in turn leads to a plethora of interpretations. In addition it is hard enough being a good hotelier let alone an expert in Health and safety/fire/food safety etc etc as well, however we do try to comply coupled with contracted professional guidance.”
Whilst the RRO appears on the surface to offer a better solution to our fire safety needs by placing the onus on the “responsible person” – in practice I don’t think that it works for the following reasons:
• Poorly defined standards.
• Poorly defined competency levels
• Poor enforcement and training/experience.
• Lack of clarity and transparency by enforcing authorities.
The latest figures from the Department for Communities and Local Government show that 294 people died in fires in England during 2015, an increase of 21% compared with the 242 deaths recorded in 2014 and the largest increase since figures were published in 2001-02. The rise comes after a decade in which the long-term trend in the death toll from fires fell, from a peak of 469 in 2003 and obviously don’t take into account the Grenfell Tower Fire.
There are a number of significant fires that I think highlight why the system doesn’t work and these are just four that highlight the tragic loss of life, our heritage and to fire service personnel.
The Clandon Park Fire 2015
I looked at this investigation https://www.ifsecglobal.com/clandon-park-fire-questions-from-national-trust-member/ because I was a National Trust Member and would like to have seen what the NT investigation had to say and because I had some concerns about the FRS Report but even though I registered an official request and complaint the NT has never made this information available about what steps they took to protect our heritage – neither did they address my complaint.
Whilst there was no life loss in this fire it shows how difficult it is to get answers to questions raised by the media and public.
The Cathedral Green Fire (Royal Clarence Hotel) 2016
This hotel was destroyed by a fire that started in Cathedral Green in Exeter and again it raised questions from the media and public that would not be answered. This was the article that I wrote
https://www.ifsecglobal.com/royal-clarence-hotel-fire-destruction-uks-oldest-hotel/ unfortunately, we still don’t have answers to these important questions.
Lakanal House Fire 2009
Tragically, six people, including three children, died on the 10th and 11th floors. It is reported that “those who died had been told to stay in their homes by 999 operators, who believed fire safety measures would be sufficient to prevent flames and smoke from reaching them”.
Southwark council admitted it failed to address fire risks at Lakanal House in Camberwell, south-east London, in the years leading up to the UK’s worst ever tower block fire up to the
3 July 2009.
Atherstone on Stour Warehouse Fire 2007
On 2 November 2007 a major fire occurred at a warehouse near the village of Atherstone on Stour in Warwickshire. Four firefighters from the Warwickshire Fire and Rescue Service were killed whilst tackling the blaze. This was the largest loss of life for a fire brigade in the United Kingdom for 35 years.
BBC Inside Out South West Investigation
This is the third investigation that I have carried out for the BBC and this does not convince me that the level of fire safety is improving – in fact quite the opposite.
The BBC asked me to look at two hotels that had recently appeared on the Enforcement Register and the first one was so bad that I notified the FRS of my concerns because of a missing fire door at the head of the stairs and a fire exit that would not open. The second one had done some fire safety improvement work but still had many problems including combustible rubbish and compressed gas cylinders stored under an external fire escape, poor fire compartmentation and poorly fitting fire doors.
The third hotel was one that I could see had carried out a lot of fire safety work but needed improvement because of poor housekeeping, unprotected escape routes, fire doors “wedged open” and poor electrical installation. It was also good that the hotel owner was very cooperative and agreed to action the items that I had raised.
The fourth hotel was one that had not been covered in the TV programme but one that I had stayed in and this was a hotel that had a great 150 year history together with many fire safety problems – these were just a few:
There were a lot more problems that I noted but I think that you can understand my concerns – I did write to the hotel and the FRS and the hotel responded indicating that they wanted to resolve the problems.
Clearly, this hotel would have had a Fire Certificate under the FP Act together with a number of Fire Risk Assessments under the RRO – so how did we get to this position?
1. Looking at the hotel and the standard of fire safety I can clearly see what was done under the FP Act to gain a Fire Certificate and this would probably have included bedrooms fire doors and separation of the main stair case to allow people to by pass it.
2. It is rather more difficult to establish what has been done under the RRO as the standard does not appear to have changed a great deal but there may have been some upgrading of the fire alarm and automatic fire detection but this is just a guess.
3. Clearly, the biggest problem here is where to two fire escapes converge above the portable building and the associated ventilation plant below the one stair case as any fire here may render both escape routes useless.
Unfortunately, in my travels I find many hotels with similar problems and this is why I feel that the RRO is not working. During the course of the BBC investigation I stayed in 2 hotels and visited two more and all four had problems of varying concern including one where the FRS took 7 bedrooms out of use following my report because a fire door had been removed at the head of a stair case and a fire exit would not open. I was interesting to note that this hotel had recently been the subject of enforcement action.
Where to now for fire safety?
The last 10 years have seen some significant failures of our fire safety standards that have clearly not given us the level of fire safety that I feel are required in this day and age.We have seen significant failures in both life and property safety in the UK and whilst it is hoped that the outcome from the Grenfell Tower tragedy will provide an answer I think that with Brexit on the horizon we need to think about how we can overcome these problems with a more open and transparent fire safety regime that people can have confidence in.
Having started my career in the age of fire certificates I am well aware of the advantages and disadvantages of this form of control and wonder if a combination of fire certificates and risk assessments may provide a better solution. This could take the form of a combined building control and fire certification authority that certified the building structure and approved the occupiers “operational plan” for its use.
I does appear inconsistent in this day and age when we can go to a restaurant and find out its “hygiene rating” or buy a car and find out its “crash rating” but have no idea of the fire safety level of buildings that we stay/work in together with no way of establishing this.
It would be nice to think that this information could be obtained by Freedom of Information (FOI) requests but the FRS are constrained by the Data Protection Act and are also using the response that they cannot provide this information because it may be used for acts of terrorism.
I was recently trying to establish how many fire risk assessments that selected FRS had carried out in hotels and how many were found to be unsatisfactory and I was surprised at the variation in replies – whilst a number gave me their figures, one indicated that they did not record this information and one required a payment of £450 for the information. I would have personally thought that this was fairly basic information that should be easily available.
I think that now is the time that the fire safety profession needs to get behind a scheme to improve fire safety to protect people and our heritage and not just to protect individual organisations or interests.
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