Peter Apps

Why disabled people will be forced to stay in burning high-rises

The ‘stay put’ policy is making another catastrophe a distinct possibility

Why disabled people will be forced to stay in burning high-rises
(Photo: iStock)
Text settings

‘Grenfell is a story about a failed evacuation.’ These are the words of Professor Ed Galea, an internationally respected expert in fire safety and evacuations who, among other things, wrote a pivotal study into the attempted evacuation of the World Trade Centre on 9/11.

But this is something the British state, and particularly the Home Office, appears utterly unable to accept.

For decades, this country has relied on telling residents in burning tower blocks to ‘stay put’. This has been baked into the way we build our high rises: we require walls, floors and ceilings to effectively break the building up into a series of small, fire resisting boxes. This is a process known to fire engineers as ‘compartmentation’ and the aim is to hold a fire within a single box for long enough for it to be extinguished. As a result, there is no need for anyone in any of the other boxes to leave.

When it works, this is great. It means flat residents can avoid the annoyance of being cleared out of the building in the middle of the night because someone on the tenth floor fell asleep with a pizza in the oven.

The trouble is what happens when it goes wrong.

And it does go wrong. Pioneering research by academics at the University of Leeds drilled into official data to show that fires in blocks of flats spread outside their original compartment 1,168 times in the 2010s. This may be a tiny percentage of all the fires that occurred during that period, but it is still two incidents every week.

The problem is that we are not building like we used to. In the 1960s, when the ‘stay put’ policy was first devised, high rise buildings were chunky concrete structures. Now buildings are made in a range of ‘innovative ways’ using wood, steel frames, and with combustible materials bolted to the outside for aesthetics and insulation. Even the old 60s buildings have been filled with holes, pipes and cables, and refurbished with prettier materials that will burn like paper in a fire.

Before Grenfell, our fire policy was blind to this risk. Comforted by figures showing a year-on-year decrease in fire deaths, policy makers insisted that nothing needed to change. This was misplaced confidence. The decline was being driven by a fall in the number of people smoking, reduced chip pan use and wider use of smoke alarms. The potential for a one-off disaster with huge consequences was being missed.

This is precisely what happened at Grenfell Tower, almost exactly five years ago on June 14 2017. Grenfell was a bad, but not unique, example of the fires that have become an increasingly common feature of high-rise buildings around the globe.

What made it unique was the death count. At Grenfell, residents were told to ‘stay put’ and 72 people lost their lives.

And so, the inquiry into the fire – which has cost the UK government well over £100 million to run – made the only recommendation possible on the evidence in front of it. The inquiry said that owners of high-rise buildings should be required, by law, to develop an evacuation plan for their block.

Noting the large number of disabled residents killed at Grenfell, the inquiry also recommended personalised evacuation plans for residents with mobility issues.

It made these recommendations at the end of its first phase in October 2019 – now two and a half years ago. But the government, despite promising to fully implement the inquiry’s proposals, has remained strangely reluctant to accept the need for evacuation plans, particularly for disabled residents, insisting that ‘stay put’ is safe as long as fire safety issues can be fixed.

Eventually the threat of a judicial review from bereaved family members forced the government to reopen a consultation. But in its belated response, the Home Office has now doubled down. Branding the requirement for evacuation plans ‘not proportionate’, the department has raised concerns about the practicality and safety of evacuating residents with mobility issues. In particular, it is concerned about imposing costs on building owners – even if they are just limited to providing evacuation equipment and training for how to use it.

Instead, the government is proposing that ‘stay put’ remains in place for buildings where there are not believed to be safety issues.

But even where there are problems severe enough to merit the entire building being evacuated in the event of a fire, it does not think disabled residents should leave. Instead, they should remain in the burning building and rely on a new information sharing mechanism to notify the fire services of their presence and location so they can be rescued.

It is not hard to spot the flaws in this plan. What happens if a building is not as safe as thought? If there is no ‘Plan B’ for an evacuation, the fire service will arrive at one of these buildings with no plan and no information about who is trapped. It will, essentially, be the same problem faced by the first responders to Grenfell.

And what of the buildings that do need to be evacuated? Disabled residents will be reliant on IT systems notifying the fire services of their position – something the Grenfell inquiry evidence suggests is an enormous, immediate weak point.

The firefighters will then need to reach the residents in time. This too is a huge risk, and places a major burden on firefighters. At Grenfell, responders never even made it above the 20th floor, where most of the deaths occurred.

The University of Leeds research, mentioned above, shows high-rise buildings are the most prone to delayed response times. If people can’t be reached, the government’s policy now appears to be that these residents simply die.

The government insists a better approach to the problem is to make buildings safer. No one would disagree with that aim, but surveys of buildings carried out after Grenfell have shown a staggering number of buildings with potential issues. We are not going to fix them all, and we certainly won’t do so quickly.

This is not a small problem. The UK has an aging population and a severe lack of suitable accommodation for people with mobility issues. We have a long-standing policy of placing disabled residents into general needs social housing, without support.

All of that means the population of high-rise buildings contains a large and growing number of disabled people. Another catastrophe is a distinct possibility.

At a recent session of the Grenfell Tower Inquiry, a civil servant was asked about the government’s failure to plan for the evacuation of disabled high-rise residents before the Grenfell fire. He suggested that providing emergency escape plans would have been ‘too expensive and disproportionate.’

‘So people die in their flats because they’re bedbound, because it’s too expensive to have a system to get them out? Was that British government policy?’ asked Richard Millett QC, lead counsel to the inquiry.

‘That was what was considered at the time to be the prevailing − the reasonable approach to the problem,’ the civil servant replied.

That this was the case before the deaths at Grenfell Tower is scandal enough. That it remains so, five years on, is something else entirely.