Opinion, Berkeley Blogs

Lessons from the London high-rise fire

By Michael O'Hare

The inferno in London was finally extinguished, mainly because the entire flammable contents of the building burned up. Fire hoses cannot deliver water to the upper floors of such buildings, and the ladders that trucks can bring to the scene don’t reach nearly high enough. Many more deaths will be recorded as the search for the missing continues. Police and fire brigades told people to stay in their flats and close their doors rather than escaping, and those people were incinerated.

How is such a thing possible? Well, first we should note that dying in a fire is rare and getting more so in all industrialized countries : annual fire deaths per million in the United States are only about 12, and remarkably, down by two-thirds since 1979. The United Kingdom is on a similar trend and about a third safer overall. We should also note, as more information about administrative and regulatory failures dribbles out, that this was housing for poor people.

The ways to avoid fire deaths are as follows:

  • Start fewer fires
  • Faster emergency response from fire brigades
  • Buildings that resist fire spread after ignition
  • Buildings that facilitate escape
  • Proper behavior by occupants
  • Better medical care for survivors
  • No. 1 is the biggie, and it has to do partly with electrical codes and enforcement, but progress in recent years has mainly to do with smoking, both less smoking overall and safer cigarettes. A third of residential fires used to be caused by cigarettes, usually dropped on upholstered furniture. Cigarettes used to be laced with enough saltpeter to keep them burning if not puffed on, so the tobacco company could sell another cigarette when one left in an ashtray consumed itself; at least in the U.S., that’s no longer true. But fire can start in many ways; see No. 5. below.

    No. 2 is occurring, because fewer fires mean engine and ladder companies are less busy, and because it’s politically difficult to close unnecessary fire stations. Nearly all engine and ladder sorties in the U.S. are actually medical calls.

    No. 3 is a matter of codes and code enforcement: hour-ratings for partitions and doors, less flammable materials, UL (an American safety consulting and certification company) listing for electrical components, etc. and honest, effective inspections to be sure that’s all happening. Otherwise known as job-killing regulatory government meddling in the free market, don’t you know. Here the U.S. is disadvantaged by traditionally building with wood rather than masonry. It’s also a matter of the most reliable, proven, life- and building-saving technology, sprinkler systems ; something the Grenfell Tower seems not to have had, even in the corridors and escape routes.

    No. 4 involves a variety of features. Small things like an alarm system (Have you checked the batteries in your smoke detectors lately?) and quick-release locks on the bars people in poor neighborhoods put on their first-floor windows matter. For larger buildings, it’s a matter of having two escape routes from every location, and one of these has to be protected from filling with the smoke that kills more people than heat and flame; an example is the exterior fire escape we see on older buildings.

    I was appalled to read in the Guardian that 1970’s high-rise buildings of the Grenfell era in the U.K. had  “one escape stair which is not designed for a mass evacuation, but is designed for a small number of people to get out whose individual flats are on fire.” No; two stairs, and one has to be open to the outdoors (sometimes an interior “fire court” open to the sky) at every landing. When I was working in architects’ offices in the '70s and  '80s, this was completely standard practice. It still is. If you live in a high-rise, do you know how to get to your fire stairs in the dark? If not, practice.

    Twenty-four stories is a long way to walk down in the dark, afraid, aroused in the middle of the night from a sound sleep, in pajamas or nothing, especially with terrified little children. I would not live above the twelfth floor of any building. I wonder if the people enjoying the view from high up in the 50-story condo buildings popping up in New York think about this.

    No. 5 includes some training, such as point the fire extinguisher at the base of the flames, and occasional drills, not filling your apartment with unnecessary inflammable stuff (what doomed the partiers at the Ghost Ship in Oakland), not storing the gasoline can for your lawn mower in the same room as a water heater, staying in the kitchen when you have a frying pan on the burner, and so on. Do you know where your kitchen fire extinguisher is, and how to use it, and have you checked the pressure gauge?

    Where fire comes to your house from outside, as in Mediterranean climate landscapes that burn regularly and will do so more with climate change, you have to maintain what we in California call “defensible space," and stay on top of it as grass and brush try to grow into it.

    The Japanese have a long history of living close together in wood and paper houses, and cooking indoors on open charcoal fires, but their fire death record is not much different from other industrialized countries: this is assuredly the result of learning to respect fire, and that hibachi. It’s also socially unacceptable to have a fire in Japan; an expert in fire safety told me a few years back that if you do have even a small one, you probably have to leave your home and move to another city. The Federal Emergency Management Agency study linked above notes, interestingly, that incendiary suicides inflate Japanese figures.

    Every catastrophe has multiple causes, so there will be lots to learn about this one as the facts come in. Whatever they are, they will include irresponsible, probably corrupt, behavior by people who should have known better.

    Useful stuff is beginning to come in.  Aside from the other terrible mistakes and oversights, it appears the exterior cladding, a Chinese aluminum/polyethylene sandwich , is so flammable that testing in Australia was suspended after the first sample practically blew up in the lab. Here’s an excellent post-incident report from a very similar fire in Australia . It has everything: ignition by cigarette, overcrowded units, cladding carrying the fire up the outside of the building…but also working alarms, sprinklers, and proper fire stairs for evacuation. Deaths and injuries: 0.