On 22 January 2019, in response to an urgent question in the House of Commons on the action taken and planned by the government with respect to high-rise residential blocks with dangerous cladding, the Minister for Housing, Kit Malthouse MP, asserted that:

There is nothing more important than ensuring that people are safe in their homes, and we remain determined to ensure that no community suffers again as the community did so tragically and appallingly at Grenfell Tower. Within days of that tragedy, a comprehensive building safety programme was put in place to ensure that residents of high-rise blocks of flats are safe and feel safe now and in the future […] our primary concern is to make sure that every resident is safe tonight.

Is everyone safe?

How much do we know about the scale of fire safety issues?

Image obtained from here, free to use.

The Building Safety Programme Data shows that, as at 28 February 2019, 163 private residential high-rise buildings with ACM cladding systems that are unlikely to meet Building Regulations are yet to be remediated. Only 10 have been fixed so far. But we also know that there are other fire-safety concerns, for which there is no public data available. For example, a recent Tribunal case involving St Francis Tower, Ipswich, involved a building with a Trespa Meteon 8mm panel cladding system (another form of combustible cladding, thought to be on thousands of buildings around the country), serious breaches in fire compartmentation, and non-compliant fire doors, as well as problems with the fire detection and automatic opening vent systems. The Tribunal says this is a staggering catalogue of failures.

Inside Housing reported last week that Hyde Housing have carried out detailed fire risk assessments on all 86 of their high-rise blocks. All have problems, the Chief Executive stating that there are “serious and widespread compartmentation breaches”, “flammable and/or sub-standard cladding installations” and “missing or poorly installed fire stopping and fire breaks”.

In recent weeks, prohibition orders have been served at two sites, one in Liverpool, the other in South Kilburn, London. These are notices served on “building owners” by local authorities under s. 20 of the Housing Act 2004 where there is a serious hazard identified (see posts on the 2004 Act: part 1, part 2, and part 3). At both sites, the buildings will have to be vacated. The Liverpool Echo states that “the building has a number of serious construction issues that affect the fabric of the building and will contribute to the spread of fire should ignition occur.” These include concern over the fixing of ACM cladding, and “[w]here the ACM rain screen panels are missing, there is no evidence of cavity barriers, a requirement designed to stop the vertical and horizontal spread of fire within the cavities.” Occupants at the South Kilburn site, Merle Court, are being evicted in order to allow the owner to “rectify defects, replace insulation and undertake other works to the block”.  The BBC reported a problem at Merle Court as long ago as October 2017, but action is only being taken now.

So the story is not just about ACM cladding – it is a much bigger problem. Indeed, unlike Hyde Housing, many freeholders are yet to carry out the detailed (intrusive) fire risk assessments that will reveal the full scale of fire safety issues.

Mitigating the Risks: The Role of the Waking Watch

© Copyright Philip Halling and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence.

It is evident that fire safety issues cannot be fixed overnight. A number of measures have been taken to ensure residents are “safe tonight”, for example, making sure signage is correct, fire equipment is functioning, and sometimes alarm systems have been installed or upgraded. The main measure, however, is to require fire marshals to patrol buildings 24/7, the so-called waking watch. This is because buildings intended to be operated on a “stay put” policy – you stay in your flat if there is a fire – have had to move to a “get out” policy post-Grenfell because the flammable cladding creates a risk of unrestricted fire spread.

As the National Fire Chiefs Council Guidance (NFCC Guidance) explains, this change to a “simultaneous evacuation” policy means that there has to be “careful consideration of how people are warned of a fire”. The preference is for a common fire alarm system with detectors and sounders in all areas “loud enough to rouse residents from sleep”, supported by waking watch. Absent sounders, the task falls wholly on the waking watch staff who will have to knock “on each flat front door and/or [use] … an air horn to alert residents”, a less reliable and resource intensive method. Whether by sounders or knocking/air horns, residents should be alerted within 10-15 minutes (but this period may need to be shorter if there are “major breaches in compartmentation”).

How effective can the waking watch be? Fires in buildings with ACM cladding can spread rapidly. For example, it took only 6 minutes for a fire on the Lacrosse Building in Melbourne, Australia to reach the top of the building, far quicker than the 10-15 minute period mentioned in the NFCC Guidance. Following a recent fire at Vallea Court it was tweeted: "Residents are shaken by lack of an audible alarm. Some were woken by waking watch warden, some through the evacuation commotion ... but many remained sleeping in their beds completely unaware."

The NFCC Guidance notes that staff must be trained on health and safety and with specific fire training. On some sites, residents are doing evening and night shifts on the waking watch after work, in an attempt to keep the costs of their service charge down. In practice, what level of training is given to the waking watch? Is there standard guidance and training, as well as training tailored to the particular building? How aware are waking watch staff of particular vulnerabilities of residents? The NFCC Guidance notes that evacuation may rely “on site staff … to facilitate the evacuation” (para. 4.13). Hopefully the effectiveness of site-specific training is monitored (the NFCC Guidance notes that the training exercises should be recorded and available on inspection (para. 5.21)). If there is a fire, it is presumably not safe for the waking watch to enter a building to alert residents, and the NFCC Guidance notes that evacuation must not compromise the personal safety of staff. Enquires by Phil Murphy (former GMFRS Fire Prevention Officer, reported on twitter) indicate that lines of health and safety responsibility in this context are not clear cut; possibly they lie with the employer, and the duty holder for the place of work (in this instance, usually the landlord), and/or possibly with the local authority.

The NFCC Guidance accepts that the waking watch as a mitigating measure is a second-best measure, as it talks about the change to a simultaneous evacuation strategy as “temporary … until the failings have been rectified” (para. 1.2) and “must not be permanent” (para. 4.4).

How Safe do Occupiers Feel?

Leaseholders attribute significant mental health problems to these ongoing issues

Image obtained from Pixabay

There is mounting evidence of the mental health impacts for residents living in these buildings. A recent survey by the UK Cladding Action Group (UKCAG) compiled data on nearly 200 leaseholders who live in buildings wrapped in ACM cladding. As Inside Housing reported, the results show “a deeply worrying trend of depression, anxiety and suicidal thoughts, as flammable cladding remains attached to their buildings”, with 65.8% saying mental health had been “hugely affected”.

The concerns are not only over the financial worries about paying for waking watch and remediation, but also for their physical safety. In personal communications, Harry, from a development in Greenwich, says he does not feel safe: “the prospect of having to evacuate a smoke-ridden building and negotiate five flights of stairs in the middle of the night with a small, vulnerable baby and a wife recovering from child birth is of course quite frightening.” Another resident from the same site says, “we don’t think we can remain here any longer with our young baby …; if there was a fire I don’t know how we would all get out that one staircase”. Other stories include someone who “ended up in hospital with hypertension because of the stress” of the safety risk and financial threat. Katie, at a block in Manchester, said  “My mental health is at breaking point” – the constant fear that her flat will burn down is “the last thing I think about at night, I dream about it, and it is the first thing I think about in the morning.”

Concluding thoughts

Given that the testing programme of non-ACM cladding is only now getting underway, that few buildings are likely to have had intrusive testing, and that Prohibition Orders requiring buildings to be vacated are only now being issued, we cannot say with confidence that everyone is safe tonight. And certainly, those living in affected buildings do not feel it.

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How to cite this blog post (Harvard style) 

Bright, S. and Maxwell, D. (2019). Is Everyone Safe Tonight?. Available at: https://www.law.ox.ac.uk/housing-after-grenfell/blog/2019/05/everyone-safe-tonight (Accessed [date]).