Provisional morals of the Glenfell fire tragedy

by on June 16, 2017 in society

How many of the deaths in the Grenfell Tower disaster were avoidable?

Possibly all.

One man, at least, escaped from the top floor – carrying his disabled mother on his back.

It follows that if everyone in the block had received an instruction to leave at this time everyone could potentially have been saved.

If this man was able to get down 24 flights of stairs it follows that firefighters will have been able to have get up these stairs. Some of the 200 firefighters [1] on the scene could have gone straight to the top floor and worked their way down the block – banging on doors and ordering an immediate evacuation. Everyone could, potentially, have been saved.

What seems to have been happening – based on multiple press reports – was that people were dialling 999 and being told to wait in their flat to be rescued. Many it seems were then not rescued. I.e. they were in effect being told “sit there and die please, no, don’t try and escape; we want you to die”. People – who have been tamed to obey the authorities will have done just that. People who have maintained an independent spirit and know not to rely on the authorities had a chance.

(See for example this story in the Telegraph:

Jamal Ali, 28, said his aunt, Zainab Ali, had been told by police to stay in her flat but she had ignored them, fleeing to safety with her five children down the stairs.

“The police were telling her to stay inside, but she ran down the stairs with her kids and managed to get away – otherwise she’d be dead)

There is a moral here.

 

What seems to have happened is that the advice to people to remain in their flats was based on a policy which in turn is based on the experience that fires in tower blocks are usually localised and even if they do expand do so slowly. In this case the fire spread rapidly (possibly due to newly fitted exterior cladding). The fire commander on the scene was playing it by the rulebook and did not have the initiative to realise that the fire was not playing by the rulebook; and adjust the plan on the spot to fit the situation. This is a typical local authority reaction. The safest thing to do in most cases for a local authority manager is to stick to the “policy and procedure”. If they do this and something goes wrong they can always blame the “policy and procedure”. An inquiry will then find that the “policy and procedures” need updating. No one is ever personally responsible. On the other hand if they take the risk and order a deviation from the “policy and procedure” then there is always the chance that if someone goes wrong they will now be personally blamed. The safest thing for the individual in any circumstances is to stick to the policy.

An example of when this didn’t happen is when, in 2009, the pilot of a crippled passenger aircraft flying out of New York put the plane down on the Hudson river. This was contrary to the rulebook – which said that in cases of engine failure near the airport the pilot should attempt to return to the airport. The pilot was investigated for breaking the rule book – and cleared. All his passengers survived. (If one or two had died would he have been blamed?)

One culprit in the Glenfell tragedy appears to be a culture of not taking risks, and avoiding personal responsibility in Britain’s public services. It would be quite possible to change this culture. People who are quick to cast blame when people do take risks and things go wrong are at least as much at fault here as those who are afraid to take responsibility.

Notes

1. Daily Telegraph

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