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The scapegoating of the Grenfell firefighters The public inquiry stitched up my colleagues

Heroes are being hung out to dry (DANIEL LEAL/AFP via Getty Images)

Heroes are being hung out to dry (DANIEL LEAL/AFP via Getty Images)


June 14, 2022   5 mins

Five years ago, in the early hours of the morning, I was suddenly awoken by a ringing mobile phone. Sky News were hoping to speak to a Fire Brigades Union (FBU) official. A fire was ripping through a high-rise residential block in west London, and several were feared dead.

I switched on the TV and stood horrified at the images of Grenfell Tower ablaze from top to bottom. I had fought fires in high-rise buildings, but never before, in my then 20-year career as a London firefighter, had I witnessed such a spectacle.

Over the ensuing hours and days, I helped co-ordinate the FBU’s response to the tragedy. I heard first-hand accounts from firefighters — some of whom were personal friends and colleagues — who had attended the incident. Despite having shown bravery beyond measure, their testimonies were relayed without drama or self-regard. They had entered the tower uncertain that it wouldn’t collapse around them. Some had hastily scrawled their names on their protective helmets to make sure they could be easily identified in the event they didn’t make it out alive.

Standard operating procedures went out of the window as firefighters did their best to improvise in a situation none had previously encountered. Amid the ferocious heat and thick, acrid smoke, some had removed their breathing apparatus facemasks and planted them over the faces of casualties. Incredibly, a number of firefighters entered the burning tower several times. One crew had even tried to fight its way up the entire length of the building in a bid to reach the roof and drench the flames from above. Others, having taken themselves to their physical and mental limits, collapsed as they exited the tower. The effects of exhaustion caused some to vomit.

Back at the 999 call-handling centre in Stratford, east London, operators were taking a stream of harrowing calls — the details of which will remain with them for ever — from trapped residents. I spoke later to a manager at the centre, Peter May, the most unassuming of men. During those desperate hours, he was almost single-handedly responsible for organising the deployment of hundreds of firefighters and scores of engines, striving to ensure that, as more and more resources were directed to the tower, the rest of the capital was not left without fire cover. Peter’s testimony is a matter of public record. People like him are quiet heroes.

As the smoke cleared, literally and figuratively, we in the FBU tried to make sense of this most appalling of tragedies. Questions raged. How in an advanced Western city could more than 70 residents settle down for the night in an apparently safe block of flats, yet perish before sun came up? How in a society so obsessed with health and safety and red tape was it possible for potentially lethal cladding to be fixed not only to Grenfell Tower but, as we came to discover, hundreds of other high-rise buildings across the country? How was this any different to dousing these buildings in petrol and just hoping that no-one would ever put a match to them?

And it wasn’t like nobody had flagged up the dangers. While the scenes at Grenfell Tower were certainly unprecedented, they were not unforeseen. The FBU foresaw them: in 1999, the union had, with horrible prescience, warned select committee MPs in a written submission about the threat of combustible external cladding on high-rise buildings. One passage from the submission sends a shiver up the spine:

“The primary risk therefore of a cladding system is that of providing a vehicle for assisting uncontrolled fire spread up the outer face of the building, with the strong possibility of the fire re-entering the building at higher levels via windows or other unprotected areas in the face of the building. This in turn poses a threat to the life safety of the residents above the fire floor.”

That was precisely the scenario that played out at Grenfell Tower. Policymakers have a habit of ignoring the warnings of trade unions or dismissing them for “scaremongering”. This time, their disregard proved catastrophic.

The union had also campaigned against a deregulation agenda, set in train by the Thatcher government in the Eighties and continued under New Labour, that had diluted fire safety standards and allowed private, uncertified inspectors to sign-off building plans. These were the type of legislative changes that command little attention from the public and media, and often sail through parliament without proper scrutiny or debate. Only when someone dies are the merits of such changes deemed worthy of closer examination.

The public inquiry into the Grenfell disaster was announced by the Theresa May government, but the ordering was back to front. The first phase would examine the events on the evening of the fire, including the actions of firefighters. Inevitably, these early proceedings would take place amid a blaze of publicity. Only much later would the individuals who deserved to face the toughest questions take the witness stand — those who were responsible for the fact that highly-combustible materials were able to enter the market and be affixed to residential buildings without hindrance. By which time, as events subsequently proved, the media bandwagon would have rolled on.

Millions will have seen news footage of firefighters on the witness stand, quietly yet conscientiously retelling their stories while facing a barrage of forensic questions from inquiry lawyers seeking to pick apart their every action and decision. Which was a perfectly legitimate exercise, of course.

But how many media organisations or members of the public were still interested 18 months and more later, when the inquiry heard that one of the firms that manufactured the combustible insulation installed at the tower had mis-sold it, as though selling “horsemeat as beef”? Or that the company which made the tower’s cladding sheets obtained a certificate on a “false premise” by misleadingly submitting reports for a safer version of the product? Or that contractors involved in the tower’s renovation had used inferior products in an effort to reduce costs? Or that the local authority had made significant austerity-driven cuts in its building control department, meaning the surveyor responsible for ensuring the renovation of the tower was compliant with building regulations was swamped with work? Or that the director of another firm which manufactured some of the insulation had said that consultants who raised concerns about the safety of the product could “go fuck themselves”? Or that government officials had been “dismissive” of a coroner’s recommendations following the deaths of six people in a fire at another London residential high-rise block, Lakanal House, in 2009? Or when, in a shameful appearance on the witness stand, former minister Eric Pickles got the death toll wrong before going on to tell the inquiry lawyer to get a move on because he had other commitments that afternoon?

To add insult to injury, corporate witnesses demanded and secured immunity from prosecution over anything they said to the inquiry, threatening to withhold their testimonies if they didn’t receive it. It was a move that told us everything about their motivations and priorities.

The inquiry’s Phase I report praised firefighters for their “courage and devotion to duty” but levelled sharp criticisms at the fire service more widely. By that time, I had parted ways with the union and was back working for the London Fire Brigade at its headquarters. The criticisms stung. The then-commissioner, Dany Cotton, was forced to resign. Everyone in the service knew that, on that awful night, our colleagues were motivated by nothing other than a desperate desire to protect and save those in peril. It was clear to us that the same sense of obligation to their fellow citizens couldn’t exactly be attributed to those miscreants whose corner-cutting was the ultimate cause of the tragedy.

The inquiry rumbles on. Meanwhile, a poor, disadvantaged community in west London refuses to be forgotten. Campaigners hold regular silent street marches to remember those whose lives were lost and to let it be known they still want justice. Whether or not they will receive it remains an open question.


Paul Embery is a firefighter, trade union activist, pro-Brexit campaigner and ‘Blue Labour’ thinker

PaulEmbery

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Malcolm Knott
Malcolm Knott
1 year ago

A powerful testimony to the courage of firefighters on the night BUT the advice to stay put for two hours in a blazing inferno cannot be explained away. It was jaw dropping.
At the same time, I agree that no words are strong enough to condemn the corporate and municipal criminals. They ought to be behind bars.

Robin P Clarke
Robin P Clarke
1 year ago
Reply to  Malcolm Knott

Re Stay Put, see my own comment from someone who actually knows how hugely safe tower blocks are provided tenants are not abused by landlords who refuse to involve or even tell tenants what is going on with crooked modifications. Nothing remotely like Grenfell has ever happened in millions of flat-years of habitation of extremely safe tower blocks.

Malcolm Knott
Malcolm Knott
1 year ago
Reply to  Robin P Clarke

Had the victims been evacuated they would still be alive.

LIam
LIam
1 year ago
Reply to  Robin P Clarke

A similar situation happened at Lakanal House, in 2009. The casualties were not as severe, but the Fire Service was meant to implement new procedures in high rises. These new procedures were ignored.

Tricky Dicky
Tricky Dicky
1 year ago

Worth remembering that Baroness Lawrence said that the firefighters would have tried to get there sooner if the trapped people were white. A disgraceful, racist slur on those fine and brave men and women.

MJ Reid
MJ Reid
1 year ago

It is far too easy to put blame on the people who have to risk their lives for others. Fire fighters are not yo blame for what happened and should not have to carry that burden. Those who are to blame should not have been granted immunity from prosecution but should have been jailed for contempt if they refused to give evidence. It can be amazing what B and B at Her Majesty’s Pleasure can do for someone. Time for this country to take corporate responsibility seriously,. After all, there is a law for it

R Wright
R Wright
1 year ago

An excellent write-up and a reminder of the corporate stitchup perpetuated in plain sight. It’s just a shame you’re having to defend those who stabbed you in the back.

Bryn Richards
Bryn Richards
1 year ago

Having, for professional reasons, studied the report on Phase 1 of the Grenfell Inquiry I find it to be a remarkable document of incredible incisiveness and meticulous attention to detail and am satisfied that Phase 2 of the Inquiry, if conducted in the same manner, will identify those responsible and eventually bring them to justice. 

However, I count myself amongst those who have considerable misgivings regarding the assertion that the “stay-put” policy should have been revoked earlier and a controlled evacuation carried out. 

This judgement, made in hindsight, lacks one crucial element that consequently renders it none other than speculative opinion. That is, it lacked the personal experience of the cacophony of chaos, toxic stench, impenetrable smoke, blistering radiant heat, the perils of debris and the mental and physical demands that characterised the fire ground on which decisions were being made and priorities identified and constantly reviewed. 

The Inquiry has, in my opinion, produced no evidence to suggest that, given the central core design of the building, the evacuation would have been viable or successful nor the method by which it should have been carried out. 

As a former senior officer in Fire Risk Management my criticism, in keeping with the writer of the excellent article, is directed at the misguided doctrine of self-regulation applied by Government, instituted by concerns for the corporate and public purses rather than commitment to public safety.  This is exacerbated by constant failure to heed professional advice to a degree that constitutes administrative negligence.

It is my sincere hope that the Inquiry addresses the lamentable administrative shortcomings and that those concerned are held to account.

Last edited 1 year ago by Bryn Richards
Andrew Schofield
Andrew Schofield
1 year ago
Reply to  Bryn Richards

I am a civil engineer with 40yrs experience in construction and was asked by the Building Research Establishment, who conducted the fire testing of the Grenfell cladding, to be a consultant for them as they recognised my field of expertise but I did not like their way of working.
We found that they will manipulate the data to give the results that they want. When I pulled them up on this they were not very helpful in correcting the matter and it took several years with the help of 2 Members of Parliament to expose their ‘errors’ but they still refused to put it right.
I have tried to raise the matter to the Inquiry but the legal team have blocked it as they do not want to hear the real truth of what is really going on at all levels of the construction industry.
The victims of Grenfell like other enquiries before, will find it difficult to get the justice they deserve.

Robin P Clarke
Robin P Clarke
1 year ago
Reply to  Bryn Richards

I LIVE AT THE TOP OF A 20-STOREY TOWER BLOCK, 30 METRES FROM THE ONLY STAIRCASE. I HAVE MY WHOLE LIFE HERE. UNLIKE EVERYONE ELSE COMMENTING HERE.
The key misconduct was the prevention of involvement of the tenants in the modifications, indeed not even allowing them to know what was being done. If tenants had been given proper right to information, the Grenfell would not have happened. Tower blocks are otherwise extremely safe as explained in my other comment.

Adrian Doble
Adrian Doble
1 year ago

Great article. Why aren’t the suppliers being prosecuted?

Mel Shaw
Mel Shaw
1 year ago
Reply to  Adrian Doble

I believe the police investigation will come after the inquiry, so that may happen.

Jeanie K
Jeanie K
1 year ago
Reply to  Mel Shaw

why does it take so very long for enquiries and investigations? We used to ridicule some european countries for such slowness and ineptitude.

N T
N T
1 year ago

As a former whacker (firefighter grunt) I was shocked to learn that the cladding was combustible. Fire codes for high roses are different precisely because even the tallest apparatus can only reach a few floors. Above that, crews have to carry hose up to the floor below the fire floor to begin their attack, and hope the ceiling does not come down.
I cannot believe that every building with these materials are not closed for refurbishment. It is only a matter ofntime before it happens, again.
As far as complaining about the corporates demanding immunity, you can give them that, and then prove the case by other means, or you can ask them difficult questions and tolerate their refusal to answer.

Last edited 1 year ago by N T
Sam Sky
Sam Sky
1 year ago

And yet, as JRM pointed out soon after the event, the Fire Brigade gave wrong advice to the people there not to leave the building when they could.

Last edited 1 year ago by Sam Sky
Billy Bob
Billy Bob
1 year ago
Reply to  Sam Sky

Tower blocks are designed for fires to be contained within the individual flats in which they start. The advice to stay put would have been correct as this should prevent the fire spreading and allows the emergency services easy access by stoping the access ways becoming blocked. Unfortunately the fire brigade wouldn’t have known the cladding would essentially turn the building into a bonfire until it was too late

Barrie Clements
Barrie Clements
1 year ago
Reply to  Billy Bob

Much of the blame should however go to whoever specified and fitted the new windows which allowed the flames to spread from the cladding into the flats, something which is rarely mentioned.

Robin P Clarke
Robin P Clarke
1 year ago
Reply to  Billy Bob

Good to see some comment from one who has a clue. See my other comment for more on this nonsense about sprinklers and extra stairs paranoia.

Nick Marsh
Nick Marsh
1 year ago
Reply to  Billy Bob

The advice to stay put should have been disregarded as soon as the chief officer turned up. Concrete does not burn, so the officer should have immediately realised that the fire was in an external cladding and, consequently, compromising other flats – in fact the effect was perfectly visible!
I don’t doubt that individuals were brave and committed, but the fact remains that more people would have survived had the fire brigade never attended. This is damning of a modern organisation but typical of our modern, tickbox culture where, from the moment a child starts nursery, the emphasis is on examinable targets rather than understanding. If only the chief had arrived with knowledge and imagination, rather than a head full working procedures and personal objectives.
The complaint of scapegoating is hypocritical, as the author goes on to scapegoat others. Almost everyone in society cuts corners and makes selfish decisions. Usually the consequences are minimal or unseen, but occasionally someone is caught out. That’s why we have rules and the policing of those rules. The disaster of Grenfell can be traced back to the 1980s when building regulations, their implementation and inspection, were relaxed. Few people questioned this, especially as we have all benefited from the greater prosperity it conferred, to rich and poor alike.

AC Harper
AC Harper
1 year ago

A perennial problem is that bad things happen to good people. At one time this could be waved away by saying that God moves in a mysterious way, but in today’s technological society such a God is out of favour and someone else must be found to blame.
Now you might reasonably blame a single person or organisation if their actions were the sole cause, but our societies are so complex that there are almost always multiple prior causes to events. Multiple prior causes mean that the blame is diluted over many people, and diluted blame does not satisfy the human need for a scapegoat.
Can we be satisfied with saying that Society moves in a mysterious way? Probably not, although it might explain many things.

Lucy Browne
Lucy Browne
1 year ago

Hear hear. This article should be on every mainstream media outlet.

Liz Johnson
Liz Johnson
1 year ago

Are you serious. Did you read the article and what the firefighters did?

Robin P Clarke
Robin P Clarke
1 year ago

I LIVE AT THE TOP OF A 20-STOREY TOWER BLOCK, 30 METRES FROM THE ONLY STAIRCASE. I HAVE MY WHOLE LIFE HERE. UNLIKE EVERYONE ELSE COMMENTING HERE.
There is a huge load of rubbish being talked about Grenfell and towers generally. THEY ARE EXTREMELY SAFE from fire risk (with certain exceptions).
Most tower blocks were built in the 1960s-70s, designed by extremely competent people. They DO NOT NEED extra staircases. They DO NOT NEED evacuation procedures. They DO NOT NEED sprinklers installed. They have a superb record of 50 years high safety without any of such features. What they do have is concrete containment, each flat separated in its own concrete enclosure (which is great for noise reduction too).
They key thing which caused the Grenfell fire was AVOIDANCE OF TENANT INVOLVEMENT AND OVERSIGHT.
If tenants had been given the proper involvement, or even just been allowed to know what was going on, they would never have allowed the criminal abuses to proceed. But instead they were not even informed when they filed a FoI enquiry – refused on specious grounds of “commercial confidentiality”.
ALL TOWER TENANTS MUST BE GIVEN STATUTORY RIGHT TO INVOLVEMENT IN AND INFORMATION OF PRECISELY WHAT IS GOING ON OR PLANNED FOR THEIR TOWERS. No one has more valid interest in tower blocks than those who actually live in them.
That is the ONE thing that needs to be changed. All this drivel about extra stairs and sprinklers and escape procedures is utterly irrelevant.

William Hamilton
William Hamilton
1 year ago

A fellow fireman was on that job. He answered my text to tell me that the smell of burning Cannabis was overwhelming. Tower block hash farms don’t show up on police helicopter heat cameras.
Also: the Chairman of the Chelsea housing committee – who signed off on the cladding in the full knowledge of Fire service warnings was Emma Dent-Coad. She later became the MP for Chelsea with a majority of 20. She lost her seat at the next election thus becoming the only MP to murder her own majority.

Sabrina Sullivan
Sabrina Sullivan
1 year ago

Yes, the police were investigating and probably would have brought manslaughter charges against the directors of the cladding company – saying it was safe when clearly they knew it wasn’t – then the corporate media convinces the public they can’t trust the police and need a public enquiry. Then the unjustified attacks on the fire brigade to apportion blame away from those responsible – thus making a criminal conviction against those responsible extremely difficult, even without the immunity now also offered. Any solicitor knows the tactics being used- who is representing the families? – 250 million spent on an enquiry – set up to stop families getting justice – should have trusted the police or started a private prosecution – perpetrators would already be in prison.

Tommy Abdy Collins
Tommy Abdy Collins
1 year ago

‘If liberty means anything at all it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear’.
However I am delighted to see that UnHerd has cancelled Arnaud Almaric, whose recent controversial remarks were well ‘beyond the pale’.

Guy Holme
Guy Holme
1 year ago

What did he write?

Ann Ceely
Ann Ceely
1 year ago

There’s far too much political defencisness on ALL SIDES for any kind of accuracy root-cause analysis to be identified.

Karl Juhnke
Karl Juhnke
1 year ago

The obvious culprits are very rarely held accountable for anything when in comes to government or big corp.

Patrick 8888
Patrick 8888
1 year ago

I think some posters may be really over-estimating over-valuing the tenants involvement/tenants should have been consulted angle, regarding design/furnishing of the construction.
In ANY case…but even more so in THIS case.
The allegation about the Pot Grow-House upstairs is an interesting one, though..
As for the peer-sheila who made the comment about firemen would have arrived faster if residents were white…that stupid b***h should be set upon by Beavis&Butthead , herself. .

Last edited 1 year ago by Patrick 8888