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High rise, higher risk

High rise tower blocks
High rise living is a fact of life in London

By Kurt Barling
BBC London, special correspondent

The deadly fire in Lakanal House, Camberwell on Friday 3 July has reminded everyone of the vulnerability of high rise residents. A culture of complacency can often lead to disaster. Kurt Barling finds Southwark Council is busy trying to defend itself against such a charge.

We can only imagine the terror faced by those six residents in the inferno that took over Lakanal House. The question that remains on everyone's lips, living in one of the 208 high rise blocks in Southwark, is, could it have happened to us?

Getting to the bottom of what caused the fire and, more importantly, why it spread so rapidly is what a whole raft of government and fire experts are busy looking into.

We can only wonder how typical these problems are in the high rise building stock across the capital
Professor Ed Galea, fire safety expert

It's more or less certain that the fire began in a flat on the 9th floor from a naked flame. Residents had already been alerted to the fire by the time the fire brigade had been called at 16.19. The first fire crews were on site within five minutes.

To fight a fire, firefighters need to establish a forward command post where they can assemble equipment and personnel. From there they establish a bridgehead to attack the fire. This, the London Fire Brigade (LFB) did within minutes of arriving on site.

The blaze spread rapidly to the 11th floor. Each dwelling in a high rise is meant to be able to contain the spread of fire for around 60 minutes. This is known as the principle of compartmentation. If compartmentation is compromised in a tower block the manual on how to fight a fire becomes redundant.

As the fire travelled upwards the firefighters were safe and continued to fight the blaze. Having watched the footage of the fire closely you can see the LFB had control of the fire on the 9th floor very quickly. Jets of water are seen emerging from the burnt out frontage of that flat very early in the incident.

Fire spread

Whilst firefighters were tackling the blaze on the 11th floor it became clear that fires were breaking out on lower floors.

The most likely cause of this was falling debris causing curtains to catch light. The crucial point is that firefighters immediately had to leave the fire on the 11th floor to burn uncontrolled so they didn't become trapped by fire on lower floors. The bridgehead was pulled back to below the 4th floor fires.

It is not yet clear whether the residents who were overcome could have been saved if the fire hadn't spread to the lower floors. What is a clear, fire cannot be fought with injured crews.

BBC London has obtained a fire risk assessment from another block of flats in Southwark

Since the fire in Lakanal, residents elsewhere in the borough have became increasingly agitated by what they perceive to be Southwark Council's complacent attitude towards the risk of fire. Southwark is the largest social landlord in London and therefore has a particular challenge on its hands.

I have been passed a fire risk assessment report by one group of residents in Bermondsey. They have lobbied for over a year to get fire safety taken seriously in their block. So tardy were the local authority that they even sought the support of the local fire commander.

The report from June 2008 identified a deeply disturbing catalogue of defects which put residents at risk: faulty fire doors, no alarm system, poor fire safety management, poor signage directing residents to their nearest emergency exit, no alarm system, inadequate emergency lighting and more troubling an absence of a proper emergency plan.

A leading fire expert describes these failings as clear areas of concern. Particularly given the works have not yet been carried out. Professor Ed Galea says; "We can only wonder how typical these problems are in the high rise building stock across the capital."

Fire drills

I visited John Kennedy House and saw the general state of dilapidation of the block. Interestingly a notice in the lobby from the local authority dated 15th July (i.e. after the Lakanal fire) outlines work to install 30 new fire doors before the end of August.

Kathy Hennessey, the chair of the Hawkstone Tenants and Residents' Association showed me around. One of the most troubling aspects of the block is that lack of signage. Kathy is confident that in the 27 years she's lived in the block there has never been a fire drill.

Some of the maisonettes have an internal emergency exit which takes them to a higher floor, in the event of fire on their corridor. Kathy believes many residents are unaware of these emergency exits.

Fire safety is a major concern for tower block residents
Fire safety is a major concern for tower block residents

The London Assembly member for Southwark, Valerie Shawcross, is adamant that local residents are being let down in a bad way. She insists the local authority have had adequate warning that maintenance and fire safety are ongoing concerns for people living on Southwark estates.

Southwark acknowledges that the block needs urgent improvements and recognises that fire safety is a serious issue. In a statement to BBC London it said: "In the light of the Lakanal fire we will be reviewing our tenancy management service and our education and information for tenants on the subject of fire safety.

"Following the fire, we are urgently reviewing all information and support provided to residents, but particularly those who live on our estates."

Complacency fear

Public administration often struggles to catch up in a crisis and there can be little doubt Southwark Council is facing a real breakdown in trust with local residents who fear for their safety in the event of fire in their block. There is a fear the housing department has become complacent about fire safety.

Southwark has struggled for almost two weeks to furnish us with a fire safety review of high rise properties in their borough that should have been carried out back in 2000.

This followed a parliamentary select committee recommendation in the wake of a fatal fire in a tower block in Ayrshire in 1999.

Local authorities were meant to learn lessons from such an assessment. Southwark Council appear to be reluctant to let us have sight of this review.

High rise living is a fact of urban life. We are short of space. But the tragedy at Lakanal House has been a tragic reminder that social landlords have a clear responsibility to ensure tenants in tower blocks know how to escape in the event of fire.

Above all, fire safety measures can't be sat on for months whilst council officials decide what their maintenance priorities are.

Council knew tower was fire risk
22 Jul 09 |  London
Are tower blocks a fire hazard?
08 Jul 09 |  London
Union backing tower fire inquiry
09 Jul 09 |  London
Safety questions after flat fire
05 Jul 09 |  London
Kurt Barling
08 Jun 09 |  TV & Radio


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