Grenfell: An unprecedented fire
A version of this article first appeared in Comms2Point0 in July
Four weeks on and the devastation caused by the Grenfell Tower fire is still unfolding. The demands on my team have been such that only now, sat here at midnight, my house silent but my brain still buzzing, do I have time to reflect on all that’s happened. The communication challenges are endless, and as new issues morph into existence the potential to confuse people with information overload is in itself a fire safety concern.
We know at this point at least 80 people are feared to have died. We know we have never experienced a fire like this before. A national programme to test Aluminium Composite Material (ACM) cladding on buildings is being carried out by government and one London local authority has taken action to evacuate hundreds of residents to ensure essential building safety measures are in place. We know there is a demand for answers, and that until the fire has been officially investigated we face a race for unverified information to be reported.
The word unprecedented has never felt so entirely appropriate in the case of a fire.
The incident has been a considerable communications challenge from the moment the duty press officer took that first alarming phone call.
It doesn’t matter how experienced you are as a communications professional or how hard you prepare to manage major incidents, the reality of such an awful situation happening in real-time is stomach churning.
Our priority was to provide the most accurate information possible as quickly as possible. What was happening? Were people injured? Were firefighters safe? What level of resource was on site and what was it doing? These were some of the questions we were asking in preparation for the wave of international media interest we knew the fire would create.
Then there was the urgent need for other agencies to be informed, messaging coordinated, facts released properly and confirmed by the correct organisation.
While most of the country slept and even 24 hour news were realising the severity of the fire, the communications team were pulling initial media statements together and posting updates on social media, arriving on site to manage interest and joining operational meetings at Brigade headquarters in order to understand what was going on and what facts could be shared.
Day one was hard and very long, filled with updates confirming the severity of the fire and tragic loss of life, passionately delivered to a media cordon by a London Fire Commissioner who had been in post less than six months. As well as speculation spreading on the number of people involved, there was concern throughout the day that the tower itself was unstable and might collapse causing further devastation.
By day two and against the backdrop of Grenfell Tower we needed to explain why ‘staying put’ is usually the safest advice to follow, based on how most fires in high rise buildings are contained. The first weekend was a haze of relentless media interest, if not demands to interview firefighters who hadn’t had time to provide official statements, let alone process what they had been through.
Just a week after the blaze we were reissuing essential white goods safety advice after it was confirmed the fire had started in a fridge freezer.
As with all major incidents an endless list of questions continue, most of which can only be answered by the police investigation and public inquiry.
We have proactively tried to explain fire safety legislation and why housing providers are responsible for making or declaring a building safe, and not London Fire Brigade. Too many people still haven’t caught up with the fact that fire safety certificates issued by fire and rescue services are a thing of bygone years and the ‘responsible person’ has held legal accountability for fire safety for over a decade.
Opportunities to clarify the Regulatory Reform (Fire Safety) Order (2005) have been taken as often and sensitively as possible. Information and advice from a fire safety enforcement perspective has been reissued.
Our animations to explain what to do if there is a fire inside your home, and the different actions to take if there is a fire somewhere else in the building have been widely shared on social media channels. If anything can come of this tragedy immediately, it is that people invest in buying or testing smoke alarms, think about their escape plans – Know the Plan - and consider advice that is sadly all too often ignored.
And we have, where we can, verified information about how London Fire Brigade responded. A police investigation and public inquest free from influence and based on facts being of paramount importance.
So many staff from different departments at the Brigade support the response to disasters such as the Grenfell Tower. Control staff who took so many calls that night and the firefighters, many of whom are specially trained in Urban Search and Rescue, are rightfully receiving the praise and recognition they deserve. The Fire Investigation Team have been fully involved since day one, with later focus and demand on Fire Inspecting Officers who have been working tirelessly with housing providers and local authorities.
The professionalism of all the emergency services and partner agencies involved must also be recognised, including our colleagues in the communications teams who work so hard.
My team not only managed the Brigade’s communications to this horrific incident, but also the terrorist attacks in Westminster, London Bridge and Borough Market and on top of the Grenfell Tower fire, the attack just five days later in Finsbury Park.
Perhaps not enough is known about the specialist fire and rescue resources involved in those incidents too, but having spent a number of nights awake and working alongside my on-call colleagues, I can tell you that London Fire Brigade communications have been doing all we can to provide accurate media updates, event management, public affairs, staff communications and as much public information as possible to demonstrate everything the Brigade has done, will do and is doing to help the affected communities we are here to serve.
This was a terrible fire, which London Fire Brigade declared a major incident. Nobody working at the Brigade will ever forget it. Our thoughts remain with all those affected and especially the families and loved ones of those missing or confirmed dead.
Glenn Sebright is Head of Communications at London Fire Brigade