Findings of Chalcots estate fire safety report were ignored by Camden Council
Key failing that led to evacuation should have been picked up sooner, says expert
Thursday, 20th July 2017 — By William McLennan
A independent inquiry into failings that led to evacuation begins next month
CAMDEN Council ignored the findings of a fire safety inspection that could have prevented the chaotic evacuation of the Chalcots estate.
The Town Hall was told it must commission a “compartment survey” – which would have inspected the towers’ ability to stop smoke and fire spreading – in early- 2016, but 14 months later it had not been carried out.
A thorough inspection by the London Fire Brigade, carried out on June 23 after the discovery that the towers were wrapped in flammable cladding, found that the installation of gas mains had created holes between floors and “breaches in the buildings’ ability to stop fire spreading”.
It was this discovery that led the council to tell people to leave their homes at 8pm on a Friday evening, with many spending the night on the floor of the Swiss Cottage leisure centre, while frantic attempts to find last-minute accommodation for around 3,000 people began.
A leaked summary of the fire risk assessments at the estate had been revealed by the New Journal in the days after the evacuation, but the full reports were only made public by the council last week.
It reveals that the council were told to carry out an “intrusive” inspection of the buildings’ compartmentation, which would look for any holes that had been created in walls and floors, at all four towers within one year.
David Sibert, the Fire Brigades Union’s lead fire safety adviser, said that the problems would have been discovered earlier if the council had carried out the survey as instructed.
“A proper compartmentation survey should have picked up those things. That’s the whole point of a compartmentation survey,” he said.
Mr Sibert said that the council could have been prosecuted for failing to carry out the survey.
Other holes in walls created for electrical cables caused concern for the fire brigade and had also been found during the inspection 14 months ago. The report highlighted “multiple compartmentation breaches…on all floors”.
Gaps around gas mains have now been filled with a fire-retardant sealant
It also recommended that all front doors were replaced with modern, high-specification fire doors within one year. Mr Sibert said: “[Camden] should have looked at this fire risk assessment and taken ownership of fire risk at a much higher level in the organisation.”
He said the risk assessments were “meaningless” unless enforced by the fire brigade, but said that funding cuts had led to a reduction in the number of inspecting officers by “between a half to two-thirds since 2005”.
Mr Sibert, a former firefighter, added: “The problem the fire service has got is that we haven’t got enough fire inspecting officers. We need to have properly trained, experienced fire officers going into buildings like blocks of flats every year, looking at the fire risk assessment. They would say: ‘It says here you should have a compartment survey done within a year, have you had it done or not?’ If they haven’t, then you prosecute them.”
A senior firefighter who leads a team at one of Camden’s fire stations said their job would have been “massively complicated” if a fire broke out.
He said: “We would be faced with smoke throughout and residents would be in an unbreathable atmosphere. It’s like leaving a fire door open.”
The gas mains were installed between 2007 and 2009.
Green Party councillor Sian Berry demanded that Camden Council also publish earlier fire risk assessments to ascertain if they had been ignoring the advice for even longer.
She said: “If they have known about this since 2009, then it is much worse. I’m disappointed Camden aren’t taking a far more transparent approach. The residents want to know how they got to this point.”
Council leader Georgia Gould has pledged to carry out an independent, public investigation into the Chalcots evacuation, a measure which the New Journal has called for as part of our Chalcots Inquiry investigation.
“It’s important to remember that it was the combination of the cladding failing the [fire safety] test and the internal works, which were seen as having a moderate risk at the time, that meant the evacuation had to happen,” she said.
In a statement released alongside the fire risk assessment reports, the council said: “We will ensure all future maintenance work is carried out to a standard which maintains the compartmentation.”