Preparation is all Fire and its Risks

On 3 July 2009 people across the country watched with tremendous shock and subsequently sorrow as reports of the devastating tower block fire in Camberwell made the television news bulletins and newspaper front pages. Tragically, three children and three adults were killed as flames and fumes swept through Lakanal House, a 13 storey 1960s block, located two miles as the crow flies from our constituency.

In light of the disaster countless local authorities, fire rescue services and housing associations will be quite rightly reviewing and reflecting on their present fire safety precautions and emergency plans. The traumatic loss of life in Camberwell is a stark reminder of the dangers of fire and the importance of responsibility and preparation when it comes to fire safety.

Just across the River Thames here in Westminster I have been in urgent correspondence with CityWest Homes, the ALMO which manages Westminster City Council’s 22,000 residential properties. I am pleased to report that a growing number of measures have been – and will be in the aftermath of July’s tragedy – implemented in order to minimise the risk of fire. Clearly this will never be an easy job in the middle of our densely built-up capital city. Indeed, anyone who represents an inner-city constituency as I do will realise the enormous difficulties faced by the fire services in such areas. Quite simply from a people per unit of land ratio this constituency is one of the most densely-populated areas of the United Kingdom.

Consequently, in constituencies like ours there is no shortage of medium-and-high residential blocks where literally hundreds of people live on top of each other. The dangers that such density brings can be traced back through history with the Great Fire in 1666 being an obvious example of a catastrophe fire which spread relentlessly throughout the City of London doing great damage to property. This infamous fire was assisted not only by the wind, which is naturally beyond human control, but also by simple overcrowding and the close proximity of buildings, workplaces and materials. The risk of fires being inadvertently started in such densely populated areas has always existed and sadly it always will. It is therefore frightening easy to imagine the fire in Camberwell being replicated in this constituency or indeed any densely populated city in the world.

As such, it was very encouraging recently to receive a report on the matter from Mark Hoyland, Chief Executive of CityWest Homes. This substantial document, prepared in response to the Camberwell fire, contains a great deal of information and I was particularly pleased to see that a range of specific plans exist not only to react to fire emergencies but also to reduce the risk of them happening in the first place.

In Westminster a tower block is defined as being a residential building with nine or more levels, thus including all of those structures which have properties beyond the reach of fire ladders. The CityWest report indicates that there are six blocks that meet this definition in the constituency including for example Luxborough Tower in Marylebone, Hide Tower off Vincent Square, and Kemp House in Soho.

Blocks such as Ashley Gardens (Westminster) and estates like the Tachbrook, Churchill Gardens, Chelsea Gardens and Ebury Bridge (Pimlico) are all typically six or seven stories only at their highest so outside this consideration.

Many of the towers discussed are relatively old buildings and as such they were built in line with the building standards applicable at the time of construction. Irrespective of the age of the buildings, however, CityWest Homes and, therefore, Westminster City Council are determined to provide maximum protection to local residents immediately. As a result the previous fire safety measures in all managed buildings are now being upgraded to prevent the risk of fire. This process has begun with CityWest Homes installing hard-wired, smoke/heat detectors in each residential unit which provide an early warning of fire with the obvious aim of promoting early escapes and rescues.

Furthermore, all future residential construction projects will be designed to include fire-resisting compartments in order to prevent the spread of fire from one section to another and specific guidelines are also being designed for residents of tower blocks in the area. These guidelines will provide clear instructions and information about how to prevent and respond to fire hazards promoting individual responsibility as well as providing confidence and assurance.

Meanwhile, in accordance with the Regulatory Reform Order 2005, CityWest Homes are also undertaking regular fire risk assessments and inspections to ensure that smoke detectors, fire alarms and dry risers are not only in place but, more importantly, that they are maintained and fully operational.

It is also clear to see that the plans outlined by CityWest are not simply bureaucratic procedures. Rather they are individually focused to take into account specific residents’ needs and concerns, particularly of those individuals who may be at an increased risk from fire. For example, visual alarms have been installed for those with hearing difficulties, additional early warning systems are available to those with mobility issues and the level of support and care for vulnerable residents has been increased to meet their unique needs. Likewise special attention is also being given to any blocks that have PVC windows – one of suspected contributing factors behind the severity and spread in the Camberwell fire.

Lastly, one of the most important facts to be highlighted from this report is the level of communication that exists between the local authority, Westminster City Council, and the London Fire Brigade. There is a clear and accountable chain of command and a close working relationship. This relationship has resulted in a detailed fire prevention model and an impressive emergency procedure should a fire break out.

Unfortunately, it will always be impossible to completely eliminate the risk of fire disasters from taking place, they are after all so frequently the unfortunate result of human error if nothing else. What makes a fire more devastating, however, is poor preparation, a lack awareness of simple fire safety procedures and a chaotic chain of communication – all of which can contribute towards a more deadly set of consequences should a fire occur. Thankfully such mistakes can be avoided. By acting responsibly and in a pre-emptive as well as reactive manner local authorities, housing associations and individuals can assist the Fire Brigade in preventing worst case scenarios from becoming tragic realities.

The investigations into the Camberwell fire are ongoing and it would be wrong to speculate about the outcomes of these findings at this stage. However, not only are Westminster City Council and their partners ready and waiting to learn any lessons from that tragedy, but they are also acting immediately and consistently to ensure that local residents are as protected as possible.

I am confident therefore that whilst our constituency may face our own fire emergencies in the future we are as prepared as we can be at present. Your local councillors, CityWest Homes and the London Fire Brigade are working swiftly and in exemplary unison to ensure that fire safety in Westminster, and particularly in our residential tower blocks, is always a priority and never a matter of secondary importance.

With knowledge of this preparation and awareness in mind I think that we can all rest a little easier. Yet we must never become complacent – after all when it comes to fire safety we all have an ongoing part to play.