Rescue Flats - a possible implementation

I include in this description a number of suggestions for arrangements which I think would work in an environment similar to Grenfell Tower.  The aim is not to be prescriptive, but rather to indicate that there are solutions to the numerous dangers which residents face.  There may be other good arrangements.  What is worrying is that nothing like it is being put forward by the authorities.

I believe that, despite decades of dangerous building, Tower Blocks such as Grenfell can be made safe for residents.

According to the Report there are "at least 400 blocks with similar problems as Grenfell, which had about 300 residents.  That means something like 120,000 people or more are waiting to become the next victims.

The Report - What is Missing

The Phase 1 Report deals with immediate issues of safety and centres on the role of the Fire Brigade.  Issues relating to inappropriate construction are left for Phase 2.

What I find deeply disturbing about the Report (and almost all the public discussion about tower block safety) is that it models residents like pieces on a chessboard.  The fire brigade didn't move the right pieces to the right places at the right time.  The fire brigade will be retrained. In future the fire brigade will make the correct moves.

Human beings have minds of their own.  Their minds can contribute enormously to their own safety.  If left to make individual decisions they can become very unpredictable.  Post-Grenfell residents will be much less likely to stay put and await instructions.  By the time the fire brigade arrive they could be anywhere in the building - having any type of communications device or none.  They may be unfamiliar with their surroundings.  How the "better trained" fire brigade will deal with this is a mystery to me.

With luck, in a future similar fire the vast majority of residents will evacuate themselves successfully.  But if it begins to go wrong it will go wrong horribly.  If they encounter obstacles on the staircase (and that could mean bodies!) then they could go back up toward the safety of their flats making eventual rescue even more difficult. Groups could push against each other leading to panic, crushing, more obstacles.

It should be remembered that Grenfell was not the worst case scenario.  The staircase remained fairly clear of smoke at a time with other parts were filling with smoke.

Little attention seems to be given to the mental state of residents.  They will first be told that it is best for them to stay put.  Then they will be told that they must evacuate - their survival depends on it.

According to the plan I describe below, by the time they find out that it is a real fire (and not a fire drill) they will be grouped together, they will have a leader, they will be in constant contact with a controller who will know exactly where they are.  They will proceed downward as quickly as it is safe to do so.  If their path is blocked they will always have a safe flat where they can escape the smoke and await rescue.

I see an evacuation taking place in phases.  The most important being Phase 0 (Preparation).

Phase 0: Preparation

For a block such as Grenfell I envisage one rescue flat for every three floors - 8 flats, each serving 35 to 40 individuals.

These flats would be occupied by someone (I will refer to them as Fire Wardens) who will take responsibility for the residents in his/her group.  The flat would be divided into a public area and lockable private area.  The fire wardens would be selected at the time the flats are allocated.  They would need to pass selection, training.  Incentives could be offered - reduced rent, priority housing, etc.

They would be expected to meet each resident - note special needs - make clear that they understand the procedures in the event of fire.  They would need to arrange cover in the event that they are away. They would be encouraged to make arrangements convenient to all parties.  One example could be a sign - known only by the Warden and the resident indicating whether the resident is at home or not.  Pairs of residents could be encouraged to check on each other in the event of an alert.

The flats would be equipped with a communication system to communicate simultaneously wit other wardens and an overall controller. I would suggest that this be in the form of a fixed wall phone.

They would be expected to take part in simulations from time to time.  I would suggest one realistic simulation every year in which all non-disabled residents would take part (although some would play the role of a partially disabled person).

Someone in the building needs to be assigned the task of turning off the gas supply.  This should be done if the evacuation proceeds to Phase 2.
 

Phase 1: Alert

The fixed phone rings.  The Warden answers, then proceeds to alert his/her allocated residents.  This could be in the form of a knock on the door and a shout "Fire Alert". The residents leave their flats and gather in and around the refuge flat.  The Warden reports to the Controller the number present, the number assumed to be out of the building, and the flat numbers of any residents needing help with evacuation. The state of the stairwell to the next refuge flat will be noted. The Warden would prepare to move off as a group, with the Warden leading and someone assigned as a "back marker" to ensure that the group remains together.  If at any time smoke appears, the group move into the refuge flat and report to the controller.

At this time the wardens could be given more information about the emergency. The Controller will have the task of evacuating the building as quickly as possible consistent with maintaining safety.  At this stage the expected reaction to any fire which is not already under control would be to begin evacuation.

Phase 2: Routine Evacuation

The Controller would give the instruction to move down to the next refuge flat (3 floors).  The Warden reports at the next refuge flat and probably be instructed to keep going.  The Back Marker will report.

The groups proceeding down the stairwell need to be kept together and not be allowed to bunch up.  In the interests of evacuating as quickly as possible it may be appropriate to transfer slow-moving residents to the following group.  The Wardens and Back Markers will note that this has happened.  They should never move outside shouting distance from one another.

On leaving the building an outside controller will not the number leaving in each group.  This will be compared with the numbers reported by the Warden and the Back Marker.

Phase 3A: Dealing with Blockage

During Phase 2 an obstacle may block the routine evacuation at some point in the stairwell and this will be reported by one of the wardens.  The Controller will continue the evacuation for groups on the floors below the obstacle.  On the floors above the obstacle groups will proceed to the nearest refuge flat and close the door.

The Fire Brigade will be notified of the obstacle and its position.  As recommended in the Report they will have exclusive use of the Lift.  This will take them to the floor where there is the problem. 

If the problem can be removed or ignored the instruction should be given to continue to evacuate as per Phase 2.  If the problem is thick smoke the Fire Brigade will help people past the obstacle.  If there is little chance of the fire spreading it may be appropriate to suspend the evacuation.

Phase 3B: Special Needs

The Fire Brigade will be given a list of flats where there are people with special needs waiting to be evacuated.  This can be done by means of the lift, which is for the exclusive use by the Fire Brigade. If there are significant risks then it may be appropriate to suspend their evacuation.

Phase 4: Suspended Evacuations

Where there are risks to individuals which appear greater than the risk of staying put, then the evacuations can be halted temporarily.  A priority list can be drawn up, with those living high up in the building given priority.  If there are signs of the fire spreading then these evacuations can take place.


What about the Cyanide?

Although the risk of cyanide from burning insulation was omitted from the report and forgotten by the media, I believe that even in this case the problem can be solved.

Cyanide gas is the nightmare scenario.  Walking a few paces through a cloud of cyanide can be enough to kill.

In buildings where there is a danger of cyanide from burning insulation, one solution would be for the wardens to keep a canary in a cage.  In the event of an alert then the cages could be placed in the stairwell between the refuge flats. Healthy birds should be a good indicator that that it safe to proceed past them.  In the event of a problem the Controller will be alerted while people in the stairwell above the obstacle will move into the nearest refuge flat to await instructions.  In the worst case the fire brigade will be able to use breathing apparatus to help residents past the obstruction.

False Alarms

The Report noted the absence of a fire alarm in Grenfell.  In a subsequent fire in a student residence in Bolton there was a fire alarm but it was ignored because false alarms were a frequent occurrence.

In the above system a Warden would be alerted.  He or she would check to eliminate an obvious false alarm.  This could occur before there is any movement of residents.  The causes of false alarms should be investigated to prevent repetitions. Residents must be assured that there is good reason to respond to alerts.

Timing

In the Grenfell fire there was 15 minutes from first alert to the fire spreading to the cladding. The first report of smoke in another location occurred at 30 minutes. A healthy person should be able to descend from the 24th floor in about 10 minutes. This means that by the time a fire begins to spread beyond a single location, most people should be evacuated.

By about 15 minutes, most residents should have self-evacuated.  The reports from the Wardens should provide a clear picture of the remaining problems (where? how many people? nature of the problem).
The Fire Brigade should be in a good position to execute Phase 3B - as noted above.

Personal Note

I am aware that some people will think I am being unfair asking ordinary residents to take on unusual responsibilities.  My own belief is that if you expect support from the wider society (eg. housing benefit) then it is not unreasonable to expect you to make some effort in return.

I think that there could be a many indirect benefits.  It could improve social contact, reduce loneliness and act as a forum for bringing about better living conditions, particularly with respect to safety.

There is an enormous social gap between the decision makers (well-off, well connected) on the one hand and many public housing residents (isolated, unaware, powerless) on the other.  If leading politicians were obliged to live at the top of buildings like Grenfell then we would not have this problem!

Eddy Hunt, BSc, MSc, PhD.
edhunt610@gmail.com