Grenfell Tower – a fatal case of institutional paralysis

This is the UK public sector displaying its equal capacity for self-protection and incompetence at an extreme level.

The London Fire Brigade Commissioner has explained that more research is needed into “buildings that fail”. This, apparently, is intended to be a credible response to the failings of the London Fire Brigade to evacuate a tower block when the whole building was in flames. Even by the ordinary standards of blasé dereliction of responsibility by British public officials this is outlandish.

Update 26/10/19

The basic shape of the cover-up is becoming clear. The line will be to frame the discussion in terms of whether there should be a “stay-put” policy or not covering fires in high-rise blocks. And this will be used to shift the blame onto the question of the inflammable cladding (or other combustible materials used in the exterior of the building).

None of this gets away from the gigantic and total failure of the London Fire Brigade on the night including its Commissioner. The moment the rationale for the stay-put policy was no longer applicable they should have taken the operational decision to evacuate. Probably everyone would have been saved.

What is going on is what is called in sociology a “social silence”. Everyone involved is avoiding the one difficult question. No one wants to discuss institutional paralysis probably because that would call into question taken for granted social structures of state bureaucracy which have become reified and totemised. A nice (if dozens of people hadn’t died) example of how this society is in fact pre-rational.

end update

On 14 June 2017 a fire engulfed a tower block in London – Grenfell Tower.  72 residents died. The fire started in a 4th floor flat. According to the London Fire Brigade Commissioner herself the fire had reached the top of the tower within 30 minutes. The main timeline (extracted from a BBC report [1]) appears to be:

00:54 – 999 called logged

00:59 – first fire engines on scene

01:26 – flames have reached the top of the building

02:06 Fire Brigade has declared a major incident. 40 appliances are now at the scene or on route.

02:47 “stay put” policy abandoned.

For 1 hour and 21 minutes after flames had spread from the 4th floor flat to the top of the building (24 stories) the London Fire Brigade was telling people to stay in their flats. For 1 hour and 21 minutes after it was obvious to all that the building was going up in flames members of the public were being told to remain in their flat. They were being told in reality to burn to death. They were being told this by the organisation which receives public money to save people from fires.

The reason for this “stay put” policy is that in most cases of fire in a tower block the fire remains contained in the original flat. There is no need to evacuate the whole block – which would doubtless lead to injuries.  In this case though the fire spread beyond the original flat; so the basis on which the policy had been made had been rendered redundant by circumstances.

People were told to “stay put” by the emergency services because this was the policy and neither the commander on the ground nor the senior leader of the Fire Brigade who was following events remotely [2] had the wherewithal to realise that the circumstances on which the policy was based no longer applied. They failed to use their initiative and continued to apply a policy which was designed for different circumstances.

This is an amazing example of institutional paralysis. The fact is that for people in public sector organisations the safest thing to do from a point of view of their job and pension is always to follow an existing policy. If they follow the policy they may not be praised but they cannot (ever) be blamed. To deviate from the policy is to take a personal risk. In this case institutional paralysis cost dozens of lives; people were able to self-evacuate from the upper floors of the building and survive – it was certainly possible.

The headline for the Guardian article linked above is: “Grenfell disaster: London fire chief calls for review of ‘stay put’ advice”. This means that the Guardian is allowing itself to be used as part of a news management operation by the London Fire Brigade to head off criticism from the soon to be released report by the Public Inquiry into this disaster. The intention of the headline is to make it sound like the London Fire Brigade is acting responsibly and is ready to “learn lessons”. They can only do this by, in effect, blaming the policy for their failures on the night. But the policy is not to blame – it was up to officers on the night to follow it or react to the events unfolding in front of their eyes. For one hour and 21 minutes they chose to follow the policy and ignore the events unfolding in front of their eyes.

In a reflection of the times multiple press reports explain how the Fire Brigade Commissioner was so emotionally concerned about her firefighters on the night of the fire that she touched them as they entered the building. She cannot now think clearly about the events because of trauma and she is in therapy. Indeed the Commissioner explains to the Financial Times: “My focus is so much on mental health, and coping with the service’s response, in a way that my predecessors . . . might not have been” [2] The emotional aspect is well-covered, as is the PR, but the simple practical expedient of abandoning the “stay put” advice when it ceased to be operationally relevant was beyond them.

Despite the astounding obviousness of the fact that it was people not buildings which failed to change the fatal “stay put” policy, the Fire Brigade is largely being given a free ride by the press or, as we see above with the Guardian being aided and abetted in the cover-up. The Financial Times, for example writes: “Hearing the commissioner reflect on these events, it is clear that if you were stranded in a burning building, she is the person you would want scaling the ladder to your rescue.” [2] We can expect the Public Inquiry to offer some criticisms but don’t expect anything that gets near the root of the problem – critical institutional paralysis inherent in the UK Public Sector.




Author: justinwyllie

EFL Teacher and Photographer