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London fire: Housing boss uncertain if Northern Ireland tower blocks use similar cladding as Grenfell

By Victoria Leonard

The Northern Ireland Housing Executive (NIHE) is to meet with manufacturers of the cladding used on its high-rises across the province to "receive extra reassurance" in the wake of the Grenfell Tower tragedy.

The cause of the inferno, which is so far known to have claimed 17 lives, is not yet known.

Some 74 people were taken to hospital and 20 remain in a critical condition after the London blaze, which was tackled by 40 fire engines and around 200 firefighters.

However, there has been claims that cladding added during a recent refurbishment helped the fire to spread.

The NIHE said that its cladding system "has been rigorously tested and is in line with all relevant regulations" and that it has "no specific issues" which have led to the meeting with manufacturers.

Yesterday, the NIHE's director of housing services Colm McQuillan told the BBC's Good Morning Ulster radio programme that "as far as he was aware" the cladding used on local tower blocks was not the same cladding as had been used on the Grenfell Tower, but that he would "need to go back and check".

He agreed that he would make public any similarities between the Grenfell Tower cladding and cladding used here.

On Wednesday and yesterday the NIHE carried out health and safety inspections of all of its 32 tower blocks in a bid to reassure residents.

In response to a query from the Belfast Telegraph, the organisation confirmed that it did not carry out fire drills for people living in its tower blocks.

Furthermore, none of the high-rises, which were built in the 1960s and 1970s, have sprinklers, which are not required by building control or fire regulations.

However, the NIHE said that smoke detectors were installed "on every floor" and were "checked in accordance with statutory obligations".

It said that the advice it provided to tenants was "in line with advice" from the Northern Ireland Fire and Rescue Service.

In a statement, North Belfast Sinn Fein MLA Caral Ni Chuilin welcomed the NIHE'S inspections of all social housing tower blocks, and said she had written to the organisation to "seek clarification on procedures for emergency evacuation for residents living in tower blocks".

"I also raised the concerns of several residents from the seven towers in the New Lodge about the use of cladding on the tower blocks and I am reassured the Housing Executive has stated that it will take on board any relevant findings of the investigation into the Grenfell Tower fire," she added.

North Belfast SDLP MLA and party housing spokeswoman Nichola Mallon went further, calling for a full assessment of both public and privately-owned housing blocks following the London tragedy.

She said that the NIHE review of its tower blocks "should include a full assessment of new cladding attached to individual blocks in areas like the New Lodge, as well as a review of fire safety procedures".

"This incident underscores the urgent need for a full assessment of safety at residential housing blocks across Northern Ireland," Mrs Mallon warned.

"My thoughts and prayers are with the residents of Grenfell at this horrendous time.

"The reports of poor fire alarm coverage and single stairwell escape routes from Grenfell are terrifying.

"No one should even have to imagine those circumstances.

"I would also urge everyone to spend time with their families discussing what happens in the event of a fire.

"These emergencies can happen at any time and don't just affect tower blocks.

"Everyone should be prepared in case the unthinkable happens."

In a statement, the NIHE said the organisation "once again want to reassure our tenants that their safety is taken extremely seriously by the Housing Executive".

It added: "In 46 years, we have never had a major incident of this type in any of our high-rise buildings. We have robust fire safety regimes and carry out regular inspections in all of our 32 high-rise buildings, and inspections were completed recently.

"Our high-rise building design includes fire breaks on every floor - all blocks have fire-resistant staircases with fire doors and smoke alarms in the communal areas.

"Every resident in every Housing Executive high-rise building will also receive a fire safety leaflet today (Thursday)."

The NIHE yesterday met with the Fire Service, which uses the tower blocks for training, to "discuss any further action that needs to be taken".

The housing organisation has pledged to take on board any lessons learned from the probe into the Grenfell Tower block tragedy.

To view NIFRS safety advice for residents of high-rise accommodation, visit: www.nifrs.org/fire-safety/community-information-bulletins. Alternatively, contact the NIFRS prevention and protection department on 028 9266 4221. NIHE fire safety advice is available at www.nihe.gov.uk/highrise_buildings or from a local office

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