Angel tenants who fled fire ask: why are there no alarms?
Expert warns that system where residents ‘stay put’ during blaze is not working post-Grenfell
05 April, 2019 — By Calum Fraser
The fire at a six-storey block on the Packington estate on Saturday night
TERRIFIED tenants have been scrambling to find out why communal alarms did not go off after a blaze tore through a flat on the fourth floor of their tower block – only to find out that there are none.
The case has sparked a debate on the effectiveness of fire safety policy covering high-rise buildings.
Residents ran through corridors banging on neighbours’ doors as black smoke filled a six-storey block on the Packington estate, in Angel, on Saturday night.
Half a dozen of them told the Tribune they did not know why the alarms did not go off in the block managed by housing association Hyde.
A father-of-one said: “I have a new-born baby and I can’t be dealing with this. I am going to write to my housing association to find out what is going on.” A woman who had just moved her elderly mother into the block where the fire broke out said she was “terrified” and had been worrying all week about it.
An elderly bed-bound man, who lives in a neighbouring flat on the fourth floor, slept through the incident and did not know about it until his carer told him in the morning.
Residents were then surprised to learn that the development was built without communal alarms as part of a “stay put” and “flat contained” fire strategy that Hyde follows at this development.
This strategy is in place to stop residents clogging up corridors and stairwells, preventing firefighters from accessing the blaze flat.
Stephen MacKenzie, a fire safety expert who has worked with communities impacted by the Grenfell disaster, said: “For many people the stay put system is counter intuitive. You hear there’s a fire in the building and they want to get out. Especially since Grenfell.
“What we have got is a system that has worked for the majority of cases, however we should be adopting as contingency what is called progressive evacuation following Grenfell. This would have a more sophisticated link system between communal areas and individual flats. This means there are warnings that progress to cascade alarms, in a way that only evacuate areas that are in immediate danger, and not hamper fire service operations during initial fire stages but has capacity to trigger total evacuation. Now we have absolute confusion over what’s safe.”
An inquiry into the Grenfell disaster is being led by Judge Moore-Bick and phase one report is due latter this year. In parallel Dame Judith Hackitt was commissioned to review fire and building standards regulations which concluded last year.
Mr Mackenzie, who now works as an independent fire safety consultant, said: “Everyone is holding their breath for some form of resolution from central government or the Hackitt review or the grenfell inquiry, but the cynical in me suggests this will not be fourth coming for some time.
“Hence we’re using potentially defective and unverified fire safety regimes in high rise buildings without contingency.”
Scores of residents self-evacuated on Saturday despite the stay-put policy.
The blaze was started by a tea-light candle left burning on the balcony, the Fire Brigade believes.
At the height of the fire the brigade’s 999 control centre received 24 calls. There were six fire engines and around 40 firefighters at the scene.
The brigade was called at 10.23pm and the fire was under control about an hour later.
Director of compliance at Hyde Judith Page said: “There is a stay-put policy in place at Packington Square, which means that residents should only evacuate if a fire breaks out in their home, or if told to do so by the fire brigade. This policy is explained in everyone’s home user guide.
“There is not a communal fire alarm system here (in line with the building’s fire strategy), but we do have a very sophisticated smoke detector system which, when activated, opens vents to clear smoke from communal areas.
“In this instance, the fire brigade dealt with the fire very quickly. It was contained within the flat itself, which means that the communal smoke detectors would not have been activated.”
She added: “I am delighted that the residents affected were able to evacuate safely and would like to thank the fire brigade for their swift professional action and for ensuring our residents were alright.”
An Islington Council spokeswoman said: “The council has a fire risk assessment (FRA) programme for all council homes. The fire safety strategy for each property will depend on the construction, use and condition of the property, including any significant findings of the FRA.”
Firefighters save Crystal
A CAT found unconscious at the scene of the blaze survived after being given oxygen by firefighters.
London Fire Brigade said it had resuscitated the pet, named Crystal, after fighting the blaze, believed to have been started by a tea-light candle. A London Fire Brigade spokesperson said: “Candles and tea-lights are one of the most common causes of fire. It’s really important that you never leave a candle unattended. Keep them away from curtains and anything else that can easily catch fire.”