Stay or go?

Last week I wrote about the Grenfell Inquiry. One of the points raised in Sir Martin Moore Bick’s Phase 1 report was the failure to reverse the “stay put” advice once it was clear that the block was beyond saving. Ever since the 1960s it has been an article of faith that compartmentalisation in tower blocks does not require mass evacuation, and that moving hundreds of people out of a block could be more dangerous than them staying put. Not only is there a danger that stairways will be dark, smoke-filled and fire-ravaged, leading to a degree of confusion and panic, but one has to bear in mind disasters where people died as a result of being crushed in a confined space, such as Bethnal Green tube (1943:173 deaths), Ibrox (1971: 66 deaths), and Hillsborough (1989: 96 deaths).

One of the inquiry’s recommendations is that the government should put in place national guidelines requiring the owners and managers of high-rise residential blocks to draw up plans for the partial or total evacuation of their buildings. These should include measures to protect exit routes and to prepare personal emergency evacuation plans (PEEPs) for vulnerable residents, such as the elderly, people with disabilities, and families with young children, for whom evacuation might be more difficult. Their details should be provided in a property information box, stored on the premises, and copies of these plans should be lodged with local fire and rescue services and also displayed within the premises. The inquiry also recommends that the fire and rescue service should be able to send a signal to all or some residents to instruct them to evacuate using “sounders or similar devices”.

The Tenant Management Organisation is heavily criticised in the inquiry report, because its emergency plan was 15 years out of date and did not reflect the renovations in 2016. Senior staff were criticised for failing to show any leadership on the night. This on its own should be enough to sound an alarm bell to any landlord who looks after a high-rise building.

To be clear, evacuation will be a back-up plan for circumstances where compartmentalisation has failed, but every landlord who owns or manages high rise blocks will need to give some serious and urgent thought to this – and they should do it now, without waiting to be told (the memory of the Lakanal House warnings, ignored by the government, should be fresh in everyone’s mind). A starting point is to know who is living in the building to begin with – not an easy task in itself and there’s obviously a balance to be struck between Big Brother monitoring and allowing residents to live their lives without undue snooping. But in the event of evacuation, the fire and rescue service will need to have a clear idea of who is living in the block, particularly details of vulnerable residents.

In terms of evacuation plans, it is worth looking at lessons and thinking from elsewhere. Surveys of people in the Twin Towers, where 14,000 people were evacuated, show that 90% delayed their evacuation to carry out tasks such as closing down their computers and seeking to find out information, some by as much as 30 minutes. Eight out of ten people stopped on the way down, mainly due to obstructions on the stairs. The speed of evacuation was slow, and these were mostly relatively healthy office workers. This means that any evacuation plan would likely need to be phased, hence the inquiry’s recommendation that signals should be capable of sounding in separate parts of the building in turn. After 9/11 all kinds of ideas were floated to aid evacuation, including helicopters (discounted in the Grenfell report), parachutes, huge air bags at the base of the building, aircraft-like escape chutes, rope ladders (some residents at Grenfell tied sheets and blankets together), and so on.

One interesting concept that I became aware of recently is The Grand Shaft on the Western Heights at Dover. This is a magnificent triple helix staircase (ie, three intertwined staircases within one brick cylinder). Built between 1806 and 1809 and 140-feet high, it was designed to allow hundreds of soldiers to move quickly from their clifftop barracks to the shore in case of invasion. I’m not suggesting that this is necessarily practical but imagine a double or triple helix staircase attached to the outside of a tower (think of Trellick Tower which has a detached staircase and lift). It could certainly give a degree of comfort to residents.

The Grenfell Inquiry report also highlighted the inability of the fire and rescue service to take control of the lifts, which allowed some occupants to use them in trying to escape, “in some cases with fatal consequences”. So, the report recommends that every high-rise residential building should be required to have regular inspections of lifts and to report such inspections to their local fire and rescue service every month.

In the absence of any new guidance or regulations, I think a good starting point would be to talk to residents about evacuation plans. Living in a tower has some benefits but it also comes with risks. Residents know this, and landlords would be wise to have an open discussion with them and seek to mitigate the risks in partnership. After all, residents will know the block well and could have some thoughts about some of the ideas discussed above. They might also come up with some suggestions that haven’t even been considered. One of the big criticisms from residents at Grenfell is that their landlord repeatedly failed to listen or talk to them about fire safety issues. That should stand as a history lesson and a warning.


This blog was first published by The Housing Quality Network See here.

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