London fire: Six questions for the investigation

A general view of the burning 24 storey residential Grenfell Tower block in Latimer RoadImage copyright
Getty Images

At least 17 people have died after a huge fire raged through the night at a west London 24-storey tower block, and as more details emerge, here are the questions facing investigators.

1. How did the fire start?

Image copyright
Reuters/Toby Melville

Firefighters were called to Grenfell Tower in Latimer Road at 00:54 BST on Wednesday and were still trying to put out the fire in the late afternoon.

The fire is believed to have started on the fourth floor. The cause remains unknown.

London fire: Live updates
What we know so far

Tower blocks are designed so fires should stay contained within individual flats. But this clearly did not happen.

In 2009, three women and three children were killed by a fire in the 14-storey Lakanal House, in south London, which started with a TV set on the ninth floor.

Southwark Council admitted it had failed to address fire risks and was fined £270,000, plus £300,000 in costs.

2. Why did the fire spread so quickly?

Footage has shown the fire spreading up one side of the building externally, before engulfing the entire block.

Fire safety expert Elvin Edwards described it as a “chimney effect”, adding that the wind would have fanned the flames.

Cladding can create cavities which in some cases can cause a chimney effect, drawing flames up the cavity if there are no fire barriers.

The London Fire Brigade’s aerial platform vehicles can reach heights of only about 32m (105ft) – limiting how high up the blaze can be fought.

Having to get 20 storeys up to rescue people in that situation “is just unbelievable”, firefighter turned safety consultant Bob Parkin said.

Concerns raised about Grenfell Tower ‘for years’

Matt Wrack, of the Fire Brigades Union, said something had clearly gone badly wrong with fire prevention procedures at the building.

Before and during a recent refurbishment, the local Grenfell Action Group said the block constituted a fire risk and residents warned that site access for emergency vehicles was “severely restricted”.

Get news from the BBC in your inbox, each weekday morning

3. Should there have been alarms and sprinklers?

Image copyright
getty/Leon Neal

The block – which was built in 1974 – did not have a sprinkler system.

Under current law, all new residential blocks over 30m high must have sprinkler systems fitted.

There is no legal requirement for local authorities to retrofit sprinklers to tower blocks.

Ronnie King, honorary secretary of the All-Party Fire Safety and Rescue Group, told LBC there were about 4,000 tower blocks that did not have fire sprinklers fitted into them.

He said after the fire in Lakanal House there had been a “recommendation, which was down to each local council and landlords to determine the appropriateness” of the lack of fire sprinklers in some blocks.

In Wales, sprinklers are compulsory for all newly-built houses and blocks of flats, as well as care homes and university halls of residence.

Paul Fuller, chairman of the Fire Sector Federation, said sprinklers could have helped lessen the impact of the fire.

He told BBC Radio 4’s World At One programme: “We know that sprinklers are effective.

“Also, sprinklers will make the environment more survivable by containing the fire and containing the smoke. But they are not a total solution.”

Some residents have also reported not hearing fire alarms.

Alarms will often go off only on the floor affected, according to fire expert Elfyn Edwards.

4. Did a renovation in 2016 affect the building’s safety?

Image copyright
Getty Images

Rydon Construction carried out a £8.6m refurbishment of the 24-storey tower, which was completed in May last year.

It said it had delivered a “number of improvements” to community facilities and energy efficiency to the building.

“Externally, rain screen cladding, curtain wall facade and replacement windows were fitted, improving thermal insulation and modernising the exterior of the building,” it said.

Fire safety experts have already pointed to cladding on the building as a possible reason the blaze spread so quickly externally.

The cladding requested for the refurbishment had a metal outer coating and an expanded foam interior.

The Fire Protection Association (FPA), the UK’s national fire safety organisation, says that when properly fitted – and with its polyethylene insulation expertly encapsulated – cladding should resist fire.

In Dubai, recent high-rise building fires, including at the 79-storey Torch tower in 2015, spread because of cladding, according to fire engineering consultancy Tenable Dubai.

Grenfell Tower block fire: In pictures

Ray Bailey, managing director at Harley Facades Limited, which installed the cladding, has said: “At this time, we are not aware of any link between the fire and the exterior cladding to the tower.”

Rydon said its work “met all required building control, fire regulation, and health and safety standards”.

It later issued a new statement, removing the previous mention of the building meeting fire regulation standards, instead saying the project met “all required building regulations”.

A newsletter from Rydon sent to residents after the refurbishment said that smoke detection systems had been “upgraded and extended”.

Local authorities are required to ensure appropriate fire safety procedures are in place in council-run blocks.

Inside Housing – a magazine for the UK social housing sector – has reported that information released by Kensington and Chelsea Council under the Freedom of Information Act shows the most recent fire risk assessment on the tower was in December 2015.

The leader of Kensington and Chelsea Council, Nick Paget-Brown, said high-rise buildings were regularly inspected.

Grenfell cladding ‘linked to other fires’5. Was the advice to stay put correct?

Image copyright
Getty Images

Image caption

A fire action sign from a similar block near Grenfell Tower

Residents of tower blocks such as Grenfell Tower, whose flats are not affected by fire or smoke, are usually advised to stay in place.

Safety standards are meant to contain fires to the individual flat affected and keep stairwells and hallways free of smoke for some time, says Graham Fieldhouse, allowing the fire to be fought and evacuations carefully managed.

“[Firefighters] don’t need hundreds of people coming down the stairs when they are trying to fight the fire,” the fire safety expert told the BBC.

Why are people told to ‘stay put’?

Geoff Wilkinson, a fire and building inspector, told the BBC that one of his “major concerns” was that smoke seemed to have spread into escape routes.

A number of witnesses have told the BBC that hours after the fire first broke out, residents were still being told to stay in their flats and await the fire service.

6. How will other buildings be affected?

Image copyright

A spokesman for the umbrella organisation for London’s boroughs, London Councils, has said all boroughs will be reviewing their fire safety procedures.

Checks would also be carried out on tower blocks going through similar refurbishment to Grenfell Tower, Policing and Fire Minister Nick Hurd said on Wednesday.

Tower block residents across England given safety advice

Stephanie Cryan, deputy leader of Southwark Council, which was fined £270,000 earlier this year following the fatal fire at Lakanal House, said: “Following the tragedy at Lakanal in 2009, we have made huge efforts to increase safety across all our blocks.”

Source :