GRENFELL Tower is the one that made most headlines. But in smaller, equally horrifying ways, it happens all the time. Around 300 people are killed by fire every year in towns and cities throughout England. Many die in their own homes, almost all in social housing. And most don’t make a political statement. They die individually, or in twos or threes, so no one take much notice.
No one could have foreseen where or when it would happen, or the terrible scale of the catastrophe in Kensington, but some sort of horror was inevitable and predictable. As Panorama revealed on Monday, it’s been a deeply frustrating process.
In an address to the Local Government Association four years ago, I pointed out that “every major advance in fire safety has been inspired by a startling tragedy. If there’s another calamity there’ll be another political panic and another belated political response. But we will have to wait for another shocking conflagration”.
We always need to be shocked out of our apathy.
It took 11 dead in a blaze at the Rose & Crown in Saffron Walden in Essex 40 years ago to pave the way for building regulations in the Fire Precautions Act. The hotel had no proper alarm, no fire doors, no emergency exit signs, no extinguishers.
It took 56 dead at the Bradford City Football Club fire in 1985 to inspire a host of safety features for our stadiums.
It took 31 dead in the King’s Cross fire in 1987 before we finally invested in the London Tube that had been under tight budget constraints for decades.
I first became involved at the request of fire chiefs because of other campaigns on community safety. I’d set up the Jill Dando Institute to help cut crime but, more importantly, back in the 1980s, I’d persuaded the Government to set targets for casualties on the roads. It had been so successful – our goal was to cut deaths from 6,000 to 2,000 which we quickly overshot – that fire safety experts hoped I could help them do the same with fire.
So for more than 15 years, I, and many other campaigners such as Ronnie King, have been pressing the case to update building regulations and especially for sprinklers in social housing.
We succeeded in Wales where all new homes must now have sprinklers. But time and again Tory ministers in London told us they didn’t want more red tape and Labour ministers, including Sadiq Khan, now London’s mayor, told us the expenditure wasn’t warranted.
To be fair, they all listened to their advisers. It was their advisers who got it wrong. Stephen Williams, a former minister, has openly blamed senior civil servants, admitting he knew nothing about fire safety. Quite. Ministers are amateurs, always happy to take credit, but keen to palm off blame. Had Sir Ken Knight and Peter Holland, the Chief Fire and Rescue Advisers, been onside, things might have been different. I know them well and they are good people, but as they saw it, we were asking for a massive investment at a time when deaths were falling.
So we could do with less party politics here. We all let down the Grenfell residents. And we all must share the blame, including those of us who failed to make the case sufficiently convincing.
Sprinklers are the gold standard. They are cheap, simple and effective. They are roughly the price of fitted carpets. A sprinkler head activates only if the air immediately around it becomes hot enough to shatter a small glycerine-filled glass bulb, and other sprinkler heads will only trigger if the fire spreads. They cause far less water damage than a firefighter’s hose, and where buildings are comprehensively protected, in 95 per cent of cases a fire is controlled by sprinklers alone. Oh, and don’t believe the myth that they can all go off accidentally, as the leader of one of Britain’s biggest councils told last weekend. That only happens in the movies.
They are not invincible. They can’t function if the water supply fails. But, and this is the truth that makes me so upset in the light of events last week, no one ever dies from fire when a home is protected by automatic sprinklers.
Lots of things went wrong at Grenfell. It’s outrageous our advice wasn’t heeded on updating building regulations to outlaw flammable cladding, and we must upgrade ventilation systems and beef up the quality of fire inspection for homes in multi-occupation.
Nonetheless, a single sprinkler head would almost certainly have put out the fire in minutes in the flat where it started. Even if that failed and flames spread unnoticed up the outside of the building, sprinklers would have saved lives, quenching the blaze wherever it sought to intrude, cooling the air and washing down the smoke.
Thank heavens some councils, such as Croydon, have now pledged to protect more of their buildings.
But let’s not be persuaded that the risk is only in high-rise towers. Most fire victims are in low-rise. And let’s not get fixated on cladding. What we need is a comprehensive review of building regulations and, above all, we need sprinklers. We need them in all social housing, all care homes, and all multi-occupation premises including schools – and let’s not forget our hospitals. Where necessary, we need to retrofit them.
The people I care about most are those whose safety depends on others. But families who own their homes ought to think about protecting themselves too. There are tower blocks without sprinklers which are home to thousands of prosperous people, including some in Kensington which are in sight of Grenfell. Few housebuilders install sprinklers by default. They should.
We owe this not just to the dead of Grenfell Tower – or even to those desperately ill with seared skin, scorched airways and lost relatives –but also to the survivors, the rescuers and the distraught onlookers. I have escaped from a fatal house fire myself and I know the lasting trauma that survivors suffer even if they get out unscathed.
There is a terrible anger after Grenfell. We must put it to good use.
Nick Ross is a broadcaster. He presented Crimewatch before setting up the Jill Dando Institute. He is supporting the British Red Cross London Fire Relief Fund.