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Grenfell Inquiry: What have we learned from firefighters’ evidence?

Eighty witnesses attended the hearings.


The Grenfell Tower fire

The Grenfell Tower fire

The Grenfell Tower fire

London Fire Brigade staff have been giving evidence for 42 days of the Grenfell Tower public inquiry.

Eighty witnesses – from a firefighter still on probation to LFB Commissioner Dany Cotton – attended the inquiry to give their account of the fire.

Here are the key points that have emerged.


Firefighters spray water over Grenfell Tower (Victoria Jones/PA)

Firefighters spray water over Grenfell Tower (Victoria Jones/PA)

PA Archive/PA Images

Firefighters spray water over Grenfell Tower (Victoria Jones/PA)

– The building

One watch manager said fire crews “lost the battle” in the high-rise block.

The absence of a working fire lift meant crews clogged the narrow stairwell – Grenfell’s only escape route – hampering efforts to fight the fire and conduct rescues, another watch manager said.

There was also no safe place to set up a dry riser – a dry main that requires crews to pump water from their engine into a hollow pipe running through the building.

Problems with the smoke extraction system and activating the building’s manual fire alarm also plagued efforts.

A key fob system automatically locking the foyer door hampered entrance, with a firefighter’s helmet used to prop it open.

– The cladding

Firefighter Charles Batterbee told the inquiry he would “never in a million years” have expected to find sandwich panels on a residential block.

Crews would not have been able to keep up with its rapid spread no matter how many more boots were on the ground, one watch manager said.

This view was echoed by those at the highest level at the brigade.

One firefighter compared the tower to a “Roman candle”, while another said it looked as though there was petrol on its exterior.


Firefighters at the ground floor of Grenfell Tower (PA)

Firefighters at the ground floor of Grenfell Tower (PA)

Press Association Images

Firefighters at the ground floor of Grenfell Tower (PA)

– 999 calls

The control room received an “overwhelming” 344 emergency calls.

More than 60 residents were said to have been saved as a result of information passed to crews.

Officers recalled being forced to make “impossible” decisions for those on the other end of the line.

One phone operator said he tried to scare people into fleeing because he believed it was their only chance.

Another said he advised a father to go back and look for his children, despite fearing he would not make it out alive.

– Stay-put policy

The LFB has been criticised for initially telling residents to remain in their flats despite the speed and ferocity of the fire’s spread.

The basis of the stay-put policy is that fire should not spread between compartments, so a person in an unaffected part of the building should be able to remain in their flat and await rescue safely.

This was changed almost two hours after the fire started following a conversation between senior LFB staff in the control room.

The incident commander at the scene reached the same decision at roughly the same time.

Around an hour before, watch manager Norman Harrison said he told senior managers in a “very direct and unequivocal” manner that an evacuation was needed but was not acknowledged.

Deputy assistant commissioner Adrian Fenton said a chance glimpse of the tower ablaze on TV was an “influencing factor” in changing the policy.

Ms Cotton denied the policy could have been changed sooner. She said crowding the narrow stairwells would have impeded rescue efforts.


London Fire Brigade Commissioner Dany Cotton giving evidence at the inquiry (PA)

London Fire Brigade Commissioner Dany Cotton giving evidence at the inquiry (PA)

Press Association Images

London Fire Brigade Commissioner Dany Cotton giving evidence at the inquiry (PA)

– Acts of bravery

Firefighters put their own breathing masks over the faces of babies, ran down their air supplies to dangerously low levels and feared they would die in the burning building.

One pair went up to the 20th floor in a desperate bid to rescue a 12-year-old after being handed keys to the flat by her distressed sister.

Another crew waited in a flat, as smoke filled the lobby outside, for extra air supplies so they could guide a mother and daughter to safety.

Crews were forced to exit the building under riot shields and gave children their helmets to protect against flaming debris that was raining down.


Urban search and rescue officers from London Fire Brigade inside Grenfell Tower (David Mirzoeff/PA)

Urban search and rescue officers from London Fire Brigade inside Grenfell Tower (David Mirzoeff/PA)

PA Archive/PA Images

Urban search and rescue officers from London Fire Brigade inside Grenfell Tower (David Mirzoeff/PA)

– Rescues

The inquiry heard some firefighters were unable to carry out their missions after encountering residents trying to flee the building.

Others did not have enough air to reach those on the highest floors.

Instead, they guided, dragged and carried casualties of varying degrees of consciousness from the smoke-filled corridors and down the stairwell.

One escape was enabled after crews trained a hose on an area above a trapped man for hours, effectively preventing the fire from reaching him.

It was also hard to get accurate information from crews as they left the building as some were suffering from heat stress and low on air.

Little information about what was being done to reach those trapped was communicated back to the control room.

– Equipment

Falling debris pierced hoses and meant an aerial ladder had to be moved back, while crews reported issues with water pressure.

Crews struggled to make themselves heard on the radio due to too much traffic and poor reception.

Standard breathing apparatus only gave firefighters around half an hour of air when more was needed to reach the higher floors, alert residents and carry out rescues.

As a result, some firefighters flouted policy by coming “off air” inside the building to conserve supplies.

A command support system which records messages sent to and from the scene crashed multiple times.


The fire spreading up Grenfell Tower (PA)

The fire spreading up Grenfell Tower (PA)

Press Association Images

The fire spreading up Grenfell Tower (PA)

– Communication

Staff were forced to improvise by writing details of those trapped inside the building on the walls because of the volume of information.

There was no time to relay information about the conditions back to the control room, which hampered operators’ ability to give callers accurate information.

The crew attempting the rescue of Jessica Urbano Ramirez, who spent 55 minutes on the phone to the control room, were not told she had left her flat to take refuge on the top floor.

They searched her flat but were unaware that there was another family awaiting rescue next door.

A miscommunication between senior fire officers meant attempts to rescue residents on the highest floors stopped for an hour.

– Prior training

All witnesses were asked about training.

Michael Dowden, who led the initial response, said he had received no training on evacuating tall buildings with a stay-put policy.

He would not have been able to spot a cladding fire at the time of Grenfell, he said in evidence.

Ms Cotton revealed she had not received training on revoking stay-put orders or on fire-spread over the facade of a high-rise residential block or on cladding.

But she said the Grenfell fire would have been deemed an “unrealistic scenario”.

She told the inquiry: “I wouldn’t develop a training package for a space shuttle to land in front of the Shard.”

It also emerged that a training programme designed to highlight the unrealistic expectations of fire survival guidance policy was ditched because it was not deemed “necessary or relevant”.

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