Date of release: Wednesday, August 9, 2017

Ed GaleaFire safety expert Professor Ed Galea has identified the factors that contributed to the unprecedented loss of life in the Grenfell fire in a detailed article on the tragedy.

Professor Galea, director of the internationally-renowned Fire Safety Engineering Group at the University of Greenwich, says the burned-out building is a symbol of "unfathomable loss" and he pays tribute to the firefighters who are "heroes", the professionalism of all the emergency services and the humanity of the volunteers.

However, he says human failings contributed to "this tragic and completely avoidable loss of life" and that similar fires around the world, including Lakanal House in Southwark, were warnings that were ignored.

The article, published on Professor Galea's LinkedIn blog, addresses why the fire spread so rapidly. Professor Galea argues that weak building regulations and confusing, ambiguous guidance mean that the cladding used on Grenfell Tower may have met requirements. But the aluminium composite panel with polyethylene core nonetheless burned quickly, once exposed to the fire on 14 June, as it has in other façade fires around the world.

He says that the small-scale fire tests stipulated in the official guidance, to assess the suitability of individual components used in the construction of the façade, do not necessarily subject the façade materials to the kind of conditions that they may be exposed to in actual fires. When a fully developed fire breaks through a compartment's windows, a fire plume at temperatures of over 700 degrees celsius may spill onto the exterior façade, setting it alight. Once the cladding burns, insulation which may also be flammable is exposed.

Professor Galea has suggested a second key reason why the fire may have spread so rapidly.

Grenfell Tower had external columns running up the entire height of the building, which were also clad in the same combustible aluminium composite panels, and with the same insulation beneath. Photographs taken that night show fire climbing the columns and across the façade on either side. Professor Galea describes the columns as "essentially providing a continuous 'wick' for the external fire to rapidly propagate the entire height of the building, allowing it to spread horizontally".

He says that, as an alternative to the small-scale fire tests, government guidance also recommends a large-scale test, in which the actual façade materials and construction can be tested together. This is what the government is currently undertaking. But he says: "While the government's full-scale fire tests may reveal the (obvious) flammability of the façade materials used in Grenfell, it will not identify how and why 80 plus people died.

While vastly superior to the alternative (and cheaper) small-scale tests, it has limitations. For example, for simplicity the test assumes the external wall on which the façade sits is flat, not taking into account complications such as the pillars on Grenfell Tower; it assumes a perfect installation process is followed – in practice this can be far from the case; it does not take glazing into account, and so cannot assess how a fire might gain access to a flat; it does not take into account the amount of smoke produced, or its toxicity – smoke and toxic gases are likely to have been the main causes of death in the Grenfell fire. Indeed, the UK regulations and official guidance completely ignore smoke and toxicity, the main causes of death in fire incidents.

In the article Professor Galea looks beyond the spread of the fire to other factors that may have contributed to the scale of the tragedy. He says that although 'compartmentation' – the principle of containing fire to an individual flat for sufficient time for the fire service to put it out - is important and usually works, the risk of terrible consequences when it fails means that no fire strategy can afford to rely on it completely.

Yet "devotion" to the twin principles of compartmentation and 'stay put' – the advice to residents to stay in their flat rather than evacuate – means that evacuation provision for circumstances like Grenfell and Lakanal, in which compartmentation has failed, is "almost non-existent". He says: "If compartmentation fails then the consequences can be severe, as we have placed all our eggs in one basket."

He suggests the official Grenfell Inquiry should investigate why it took the incident commanders nearly two hours before their advice to residents changed from 'stay put' to evacuate, even though fire was racing up the building façade and clearly breaching the compartmentation upon which 'stay put' is based.

And he suggests that poor evacuation provision at Grenfell may have added to the reluctance of incident commanders to abandon the 'stay put' strategy. Grenfell did not have a working communal alarm system, meaning that there was no quick way to tell residents to evacuate; furthermore, the block only had one narrow stairwell, which had to serve firefighters as well as residents.

One of the key recommendations Professor Galea makes in the article is that the fire safety strategy of residential tower blocks must ensure 'resilience' by including additional fire safety features, such as a second staircase, wider stairs, a communal fire detection and alarm system and a sprinkler system. The article says providing at least two different means of escape from a compartment is a common standard around the world.

In summary, Professor Galea says: "The range of issues associated with the Grenfell tragedy are extremely complex. There is unlikely to be a single culprit, but rather a systemic failure of multiple systems that we rely on for fire safety. While there is an understandable clamour for clarity and justice, in which tragedy is painted in black and white, the failures that led to the horrific loss of life are likely to have their root in a world that is far more grey.

"It is thus essential for the Inquiry to go beyond the cause of the rapidly spreading façade fire, to determine why so many lives were lost in this particular façade fire. What made this rapidly spreading, full-height façade fire different from all the others that have occurred around the world? Identifying and addressing these issues will be the legacy of the Grenfell fire and its victims."

Professor Galea has made detailed recommendations on how regulations, guidance and tests should be tightened so that buildings can withstand the conditions of a real fire.

The blog is in six parts at:

Fire Safety Engineering Group (FSEG) on Facebook:

A pdf of the article can be downloaded by following the link: Thoughts on the Grenfell Tower Fire: When the Colour of Fire is Grey.


Story by Public Relations