The London high-rise fire

The inferno in London is out, mainly because the entire flammable contents of the building have burned up.  Fire hoses cannot deliver water to the upper floors of such buildings, and the ladders trucks can bring to the scene don’t reach nearly high enough. Many more deaths will be recorded–I expect a toll in the dozens–as the search for the missing continues. Police and fire brigades told people to stay in their flats and close their doors rather than escaping, and those people have been incinerated. As the structure of the building, whether concrete or steel framed, has certainly been compromised, possible collapse will make it impossible to search for bodies for quite a while. [update 14/VII: they are using drones! Nature imitating art; the Economist big drone wrapup was published last week.)

How is such a thing possible?  Well, first we should note that dying in a fire is rare and getting more so in all industrialized countries: annual fire deaths per million in the US are only about 12, and remarkably, down by two-thirds since 1979. The UK is on a similar trend and about a third safer overall. We should also note, as more information about administrative and regulatory failures dribbles out, that this was housing for poor people.

The ways to avoid fire deaths are as follows:

  1. start fewer fires
  2. faster emergency response from fire brigades
  3. buildings that resist fire spread after ignition
  4. buildings that facilitate escape
  5. proper behavior by occupants
  6. better medical care for survivors

No. 1 is the biggie, and it has to do partly with electrical codes and enforcement, but progress in recent years has mainly to do with smoking, both less smoking overall and safer cigarettes. A third of residential fires used to be caused by cigarettes, usually dropped on upholstered furniture. Cigarettes used to be laced with enough saltpeter to keep them burning if not puffed on, so the tobacco company could sell another cigarette when one left in an ashtray consumed itself; at least in the US that’s no longer true. But fire can start in many ways; see 5. below.

No. 2 is occurring, because fewer fires mean engine and ladder companies are less busy, and because it’s politically difficult to close unnecessary fire stations. Nearly all engine and ladder sorties in the US now are actually medical calls.

No. 3 is a matter of codes and code enforcement: hour-ratings for partitions and doors, less flammable materials, UL listing for electrical components, etc. and honest, effective inspections to be sure that’s all happening. Otherwise known as job-killing regulatory government meddling in the free market, don’t you know. Here the US is disadvantaged by traditionally building with wood rather than masonry. It’s also a matter of the most reliable, proven, life- and building-saving technology, sprinkler systems; something the Grenfell Tower seems not to have had, even in the corridors and escape routes.

No. 4 involves a variety of features. Small things like an alarm system (have you checked the batteries in your smoke detectors lately?) and quick-release locks on the bars people in poor neighborhoods put on their first-floor windows matter. For larger buildings, it’s a matter of having two escape routes from every location, and one of these has to be protected from filling with the smoke that kills more people than heat and flame; an example is the exterior fire escape we see on older buildings. I was appalled to read in the Guardian that 1970’s high-rise UK buildings of the Grenfell era had  “one escape stair which is not designed for a mass evacuation, but is designed for a small number of people to get out whose individual flats are on fire”. No; two stairs, and one has to be open to the outdoors (sometimes an interior “fire court” open to the sky) at every landing. When I was working in architects’ offices in the 70s and 80s, this was completely standard practice. It still is. If you live in a high-rise, do you know how to get to your fire stairs in the dark? If not, practice.

Twenty-four stories is a long way to walk down in the dark, afraid, aroused in the middle of the night from a sound sleep, in pajamas or nothing, especially with terrified little children. I would not live above the twelfth floor of any building. I wonder if the people enjoying the view from high up in the fifty-story condo buildings popping up in New York think about this.

No. 5 includes some training (point the fire extinguisher at the base of the flames) and occasional drills, not filling your apartment with unnecessary inflammable stuff (what doomed the partiers at the Ghost Ship in Oakland), not storing the gasoline can for your lawn mower in the same room as a water heater, staying in the kitchen when you have a frying pan on the burner, and so on. And do you know where your kitchen fire extinguisher is, and how to use it, and have you checked the pressure gauge?

Where fire comes to your house from outside, as in Mediterranean climate landscapes that burn regularly and will do so more with climate change, you have to maintain what we call “defensible space” in California, and stay on top of it as grass and brush try to grow into it.

The Japanese have a long history of living close together in wood and paper houses, and cooking indoors on open charcoal fires, but their fire death record is not much different from other industrialized countries: this is assuredly the result of learning to respect fire, and that hibachi. It’s also socially unacceptable to have a fire in Japan, an expert in fire safety told me a few years back: if you do, even a small one, you probably have to leave your home and move to another city. The FEMA study linked above notes, interestingly, that incendiary suicides inflate Japanese figures.

Every catastrophe has multiple ’causes’, so there will be lots to learn about this one as the facts come in. Whatever they are, they will include irresponsible, probably corrupt, behavior by people who should have known better.

[update 14/VI] Useful stuff is beginning to come in.  Aside from the other terrible mistakes and oversights,  it appears the exterior cladding, a Chinese aluminum/polyethylene sandwich, is so flammable that testing in Australia was suspended after the first sample practically blew up in the lab. Here’s an excellent post-incident report from a very similar fire in Australia. It has everything:  ignition by cigarette, overcrowded units, cladding carrying the fire up the outside of the building…but also working alarms, sprinklers, and proper fire stairs for evacuation. Deaths and injuries: 0.

Author: Michael O'Hare

Professor of Public Policy at the Goldman School of Public Policy, University of California, Berkeley, Michael O'Hare was raised in New York City and trained at Harvard as an architect and structural engineer. Diverted from an honest career designing buildings by the offer of a job in which he could think about anything he wanted to and spend his time with very smart and curious young people, he fell among economists and such like, and continues to benefit from their generosity with on-the-job social science training. He has followed the process and principles of design into "nonphysical environments" such as production processes in organizations, regulation, and information management and published a variety of research in environmental policy, government policy towards the arts, and management, with special interests in energy, facility siting, information and perceptions in public choice and work environments, and policy design. His current research is focused on transportation biofuels and their effects on global land use, food security, and international trade; regulatory policy in the face of scientific uncertainty; and, after a three-decade hiatus, on NIMBY conflicts afflicting high speed rail right-of-way and nuclear waste disposal sites. He is also a regular writer on pedagogy, especially teaching in professional education, and co-edited the "Curriculum and Case Notes" section of the Journal of Policy Analysis and Management. Between faculty appointments at the MIT Department of Urban Studies and Planning and the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard, he was director of policy analysis at the Massachusetts Executive Office of Environmental Affairs. He has had visiting appointments at Università Bocconi in Milan and the National University of Singapore and teaches regularly in the Goldman School's executive (mid-career) programs. At GSPP, O'Hare has taught a studio course in Program and Policy Design, Arts and Cultural Policy, Public Management, the pedagogy course for graduate student instructors, Quantitative Methods, Environmental Policy, and the introduction to public policy for its undergraduate minor, which he supervises. Generally, he considers himself the school's resident expert in any subject in which there is no such thing as real expertise (a recent project concerned the governance and design of California county fairs), but is secure in the distinction of being the only faculty member with a metal lathe in his basement and a 4×5 Ebony view camera. At the moment, he would rather be making something with his hands than writing this blurb.

18 thoughts on “The London high-rise fire”

  1. IIRC many thousands of lives were saved in the Twin Towers because, after the earlier failed attack with a bomb in the basement, the emergency lighting in the stairwells was renewed. It performed as required in the disaster. Without lights, the mass evacuation from the floors beliw the plane strikes would very likely have turned into a panicky failure.

  2. The early reports suggest that the flammable building-cladding thing was even worse than you might think at first glance, because of the design. Insulation panels (of questionable fire rating) separated from the building by a few inches of airspace for additional dead-air insulation. In other words, a building surrounded by a 20-story chimney. (Yes, code requires firebreaks at every floor and above and below every window. Which is expensive to do right, expensive to inspect, and expensive to maintain.)

  3. Is this something where we ought to be putting estimates of lives saved by fireproofing foam into the cost-benefit-risk analysis of halogenated flame retardants?

    1. it's a real tradeoff…CA has outlawed fire retardants in furniture fabrics, maybe going from endocrine fry into fire. we'll see.

  4. This block is a street away from some of the UK's most expensive homes. I also sense a growing anger in the vox pops from the scene. Some of the inequalities from the Thatcher years may be coming home to roost. Political consequences cannot be ruled out.

    Update: Theresa May's disastrous political judgement was again displayed when when she visited senior firemen at the site first, and made no contact with survivors. Corbyn's avuncular concern as he hugged and synpathised was a sharp contrast. May is now publibly jeered and told to "Eff off", The Tories as the party of deregulation are again reaping a bitter harvest as "the nasty party".

    1. The 91-year-old Queen showed up promptly and said the right words to the survivors.

      There is a lot of anger at this fire. The block was refurbished recently. The decision to use flammable foam panels rather than use mineral wool filler was made for penny-pinching. The failure to installed sprinklers and a system against smoke in the stairway is inexplicable on any other grounds. The local authority, the Borough of Kensington, is probably the richest in the country.

      1. Mrs. May seems to be Britain's answer to Hillary Clinton: tone deaf, awkward, widely disliked, and lost for her party an election which should have been a breeze, and against an opponent who should have been God's gift to her. I have been feeling wistful for a parliamentary system, with the pair of candidates our system threw up for us to choose from, but I am getting less so.

        1. McMegan has a regular column style: 'you can go too far with these things'. She's quite right – ten miles an hour is pretty slow, your pants will likely stay up with suspenders or a belt, both is excessive. It seems to me, sitting four thousand miles away, that the builders of the tower did not go far enough, and that fiberglas or mineral wool would have been a far smarter choice in the cladding.
          We have sprinklered our house, it cost $40000. We had to redo the water service from the street to have enough capacity. Do ten houses like that, you have spent as much money as it would have cost to build a new house. Worth it? When there are people sleeping rough? Montgomery County, across the river in Maryland from us, requires new houses to have them. The choice to do it is rare enough here in suburban VA that those of us who do generally need to have Maryland contractors install. https://www3.montgomerycountymd.gov/311/Solutions
          I tend to think the answer is probably that multiple family tall buildings should be required to have them and that lower, smaller dwellings need not. But she is quite right that it's something to think about carefully.

          1. Yes, she does have that style.

            And while the basic point, "You can go too far and need to consider tradeoffs," is correct, I think she might consider singing a different tune every now and then.

            I wonder if she has ever said, "You can sometimes not go far enough," about some possible regulation. Maybe she has. Maybe she has sometime or other written, in response to a disaster, "Gee, tighter regulations would have prevented that at a reasonable cost," but I haven't seen it. Maybe you can point to an example.

            Instead, she writes ideological incantations like,

            When it comes to many regulations, it is best to leave such calculations of benefit and cost to the market, rather than the government. People can make their own assessments of the risks, and the price they’re willing to pay to allay them, rather than substituting the judgment of some politician or bureaucrat who will not receive the benefit or pay the cost.

            Sure. We are all fully capable of evaluating the fire risk in the buildings we live and work in, and have a continuous range of choices about the tradeoffs. How many Grenfell residents do you or McArdle think had the knowledge to do that, knew how the building was constructed, and so on? Are their friends who might have been there for a visit supposed to perform this assessment also? Oh, and since we are talking about a fire, I guess it's necessary to check the neighboring buildings also.

            What about all the people who go in and out of commercial buildings every day? The salesperson calling on a customer should, per McArdle, check the wiring and sprinkler arrangements before going into the building where the customer's office is located. Market solution.

            And the "politician or bureaucrat" she so glibly dismisses are actually people who are supposed to know or find out about these things, and bear the responsibility for making intelligent decisions.

            If, in the US at least, we didn't consistently sneer at them, especially the "unelected bureaucrats" who are the object of so much undeserved scorn, we might get better results from government.

  5. I was especially shocked by the staircase. Every substantial building I've lived or worked in that was built in the last half-century had at least two independent staircases, each of them separated from the rest of the building by fire doors.

  6. The Great Fire of London in September 1666, that destroyed 13,000 houses and many non-residential buildings, had a recorded death toll of six. Low-rise buildings largely of structural timber, which ignites and burns slowly. There were plenty of other unregulated combustibles, but presumably the structures held long enough for the inhabitants to escape. Without plastics, there would have been much less lethal smoke.

  7. For future reference: the confirmed death toll has risen to 30, but with another 28 missing and unaccounted for, the final number is certain to be higher.

  8. The salesperson calling on a customer should, per McArdle, check the wiring and sprinkler arrangements before going into the building where the customer's office is located. Market solution.

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