Ladders on fire engines too short and cost lives in Grenfell Tower blaze, say firefighters

Firefighters spray water onto the Grenfell Tower block which was destroyed in a disastrous fire.
Firefighters spray water onto the Grenfell Tower block which was destroyed in a disastrous fire. PHOTO: REUTERS

LONDON (NYTIMES) - More lives could have been saved in the Grenfell Tower blaze in London that killed at least 80 people, firefighters say, but a lack of equipment, particularly fire engines with ladders high enough to reach the top floors of the 24-storey building, impeded the rescue effort.

"We just think it's almost criminal that an international city like London, the 13th-richest in the world, and our highest ladder only goes up 30 metres, where some Third World countries have 90-metre ladders," said firefighter Lucy Masoud, who is also an official with the Fire Brigades Union.

The London Fire Brigade's 30m ladder reached only to the building's 10th floor, and was not called to the scene until nearly half an hour after other units when the blaze broke out in June, Ms Masoud said on Saturday (July 8).

The delay in sending a high-ladder truck to the Grenfell fire meant that firefighters could not get above the flames racing up the building in order to pour water down on them.

Firefighters rescued 65 people from the blaze, but at least 80 more people died.

The delay was reported by the BBC programme "Newsnight" last Friday (July 7) night.

Not sending a high ladder was standard procedure for the first response to a fire in a tower block, according to a spokesman for the London Fire Brigade.

 

She said that firefighters responding to a high-rise blaze usually focused on rescues from within the building, and that the initial firefighting plan was an internal attack on the flames.

The delay in calling a fire engine with a high ladder, known as an "aerial" or "aerial appliance" in Britain, occurred because the blaze had been reported as having originated from a refrigerator on the fourth floor of the building, and firefighters who responded to that apartment thought they had the fire under control.

The firefighters were unaware that flames were climbing the exterior cladding of the building, which many experts have said was not fireproof.

The "Newsnight" programme said it had obtained an "incident mobilisation list", apparently an internal London Fire Brigade document, showing that a 100-foot aerial unit was not called out until 1.19am on June 14 - 25 minutes after the first fire trucks were dispatched at 12.54am. The ladder truck did not arrive until 1.32am.

London's firefighters do not have the tallest aerial fire engines in Britain, and had to get one from suburban Surrey County.

Firefighters were angry about that and other failings, which they believed contributed to the Grenfell disaster, said Ms Masoud, the treasurer of the firefighters union. She also blamed firefighting budget cutbacks of 130 million pounds in recent years for the lack of adequate equipment.

"We have absolutely always said that the resources we have in London are not as serious as they could be," she said. Firefighters have long been asking for more and higher ladder trucks, which she said could have been a "game changer" at Grenfell.

"Undoubtedly, we'd have been able to save more lives," Ms Masoud said. "We've been arguing this for years."

The firefighters union said that since 2010, 11,000 front-line firefighters' jobs had been eliminated - almost a fifth of the entire workforce - and in a recent letter to Parliament, it asked that the union be included in the investigation of what went wrong at Grenfell.

"Cuts have stripped the fire-and-rescue service of vital assets including fire stations, pumps and the high rise aerial appliances that are essential for resilience at large scale, protracted incidents," the Fire Brigades Union said in the letter.

Mr Matt Wrack, the head of the union, called the Grenfell fire "a really big turning point" in fire-safety awareness.

"The best tribute we can make to the people who have lost their lives is to make sure it doesn't happen again," Mr Wrack said, speaking in a video posted on the union's website. "We've had years of deregulation, local authority building control deregulation, cutting back fire-safety departments, allowing developers to almost do whatever they want."

He added that in the West London area, home to Grenfell Tower, "we've seen a 50 per cent reduction in fire cover".

Mr Dany Cotton, the London Fire Brigade commissioner, has said that London previously had fewer high-ladder trucks because of the difficulty in maneuvering large vehicles on the city's often-narrow streets, but that newer models were more maneuverable and the city had been in the process of upgrading its fleet.

The spokesman confirmed that the London Fire Brigade had changed its procedures on June 22 so that a high-ladder truck would be among the first vehicles sent to a high-rise fire.

In the future, instead of four fire engines being sent immediately, six will be sent, including one "aerial appliance".

The interim change, she said, "was in direct response to the government's action to address concerns of cladding on buildings".

Prime Minister Theresa May's government on June 27 ordered a national inquiry after 100 per cent of cladding on 95 buildings tested across Britain failed fire-safety tests.

Many survivors of the Grenfell blaze have been critical that the fire brigade did not deploy more high-tech equipment at the site of its worst blaze since World War II.

"Why didn't they use a helicopter to spray water at the flame?" asked Mr Yassin Adam, 44, who escaped from the fourth floor with his wife, small daughter and pregnant sister.

"They tried to focus on the lower floors, but what about the higher floors?" said Mr Abu Bakr, whose relative Hassan Ibrahim lost his wife and two daughters from the 23rd floor. "Why didn't they call the fire plane?"