Exclusive: Firm which carried out Chalcots fire risk checks questions council’s evacuation
'If they evacuate the Chalcots, they need to evacuate every tower block,' say safety boss
30 June, 2017 — By William McLennan
Council leader Georgia Gould is shown problems with gas works
THE company that carried out fire safety checks at the Chalcots estate has questioned the need to evacuate 4,000 people at a moment’s notice.
The London Fire Brigade did “enhanced checks” after it was revealed the five tower blocks were wrapped in flammable cladding and their findings led Camden Council to tell 4,000 people to leave their homes on Friday evening.
But Phil Williams, director of Eurocompliance, the firm contracted by the council to do fire risk assessments at the five tower blocks along Adelaide Road, said: “I can tell you that building at the Chalcots estate, yeah they do need some work, but nothing more than is needed in thousands and thousands of blocks around the country. On that basis every tower block in the UK, pretty much, should be evacuated.”
He added: “If they are going to evacuate those buildings, they need to evacuate every tower block in London then.”
The fire brigade’s main concern was incorrectly fitted gas pipes that had created gaps between floors that could allow flames and smoke to spread through the building.
But an inspection of Taplow in April 2016 by Eurocompliance, a small family-run firm based in Hertfordshire, did not include this fault. It did advise the council to “service communal fire doors” and “improve residential fire doors”, as well as recommending installing “slip-proof stairs”.
Mr Williams told the New Journal: “Camden already knew there was issues which they had in their planned programme of works, they already knew and they were going around doing the works.
“This isn’t something that’s new. This isn’t something that’s just happened. The fact that Grenfell Tower and so many people died has made every go ‘oh, maybe we need to pay more attention to this’.
“Camden have been very proactive, not just since the Chalcots has been in the news, but even before them. The fact that they have a fire risk assessment on the building, the fact they had the works all planned to be done.”
Mr Williams said the Chalcots estate had been given a “moderate” risk rating in 2016.
“Our view of those buildings is that fire risk to life, which is what fire risk assessments are all about, is moderate. It’s not substantial. I will tell you now, if those buildings were inhabited and there was a fire in those buildings now, the fire brigade would be there in five minutes, the first thing that they would do is evacuate.
“Can residents still live in there? Yeah they can. Is everybody going to die, those people that are living in buildings that have got weather cladding on them? No they’re not.”
The problems found by inspectors relate to “compartmentation” of the building’s design. It is this system – which means that each home should be able to contain a fire for up to 60 minutes without spreading to neighbouring flats – that informs the “stay put” advice for residents to remain in their homes if a fire breaks out.
Mr Williams said that a thorough investigation of a building’s compartmentation did not form part of a standard fire risk assessment and would take a week or more to complete at each tower. He said that a fire risk assessment takes “close to a day” for each block.
He said: “What they are talking about is the compartmentation breaches. We have picked up in our risk assessments in all of them, where we can, compartment breaches. When you do a fire risk assessment you are not going to pick up every single hole, because you are going to spend maybe a week or two weeks in there.
“We would have advised that you need to get inside the flats to see what’s happening, we just recently did that at Blashford.”
Work began in earnest at the blocks over the weekend, with self-closing mechanisms being fitted to every door. Engineers will then fit “fire stops” to the gas pipes, effectively filling any holes that were created when they were installed. New fire doors will then be fitted to any home that is not already up to standard. Once all this work has been completed, in an estimated four week’s time, the residents will move back in and work to remove the cladding will begin.
Cllr Gould said the discovery that the fire brigade’s main concern had not been picked up by routine risk assessments “raises a lot of questions about fire safety”. She said: “The UK needs a whole new safety regime. Years of cutting so called ‘red tape’ and the discrediting of health and safety have taken their toll and change is needed. In Camden I’ve ordered a comprehensive wave of safety checks – a new more intrusive and expansive fire safety scheme that covers all of our blocks. Grenfell changes everything for us all – the status quo won’t stand and the government needs to follow by looking hard at its own policies on health and safety and building regulation.”
She accepted that many of the concerns raised by residents had been validated by the fire brigade’s inspections and pledged to increase transparency and public engagement. “I want to assure tenants that in future all fire risk assessments will be published as soon as they are completed and tenants will work alongside the council to ensure completion of all tasks,” she said. “We will work together to make sure this never happens again and we are already starting a programme of enhanced fire checks in all our blocks.”
The fire brigade said on Friday night:“Following extensive joint visits and inspections the Brigade advised that there were a number of fire safety issues in the buildings and recommended that residents should not remain in the buildings until these issues are resolved.
“Camden Council have acted on this by evacuating and providing the residents with alternative accommodation so that remedial works can go ahead as quickly as possible.”
The New Journal‘s Chalcots Inquiry campaign is calling for a full, independent investigation into what went so badly wrong at Chalcots that 4,000 people were driven from their homes.
What went wrong?
- Gas mains pipes that travel vertically through the blocks were not installed properly. The pipes, which are hidden in a cupboard at the end of communal hallways, were not fitted with appropriate “fire stops” – meaning there were gaps in the structure of the building that could allow smoke and flames to travel between floors in the event of a fire. This was the biggest risk to safety.
- The installation of other services, like electricity cables and phone lines, had in other places “breached the ability to stop fire spreading”.
- Many of the fire doors in the communal areas, while meeting standards at the time they were installed, were no longer considered robust enough in light of the fact the building was wrapped in flammable cladding.
- Front doors to individual flats were also sub-standard, with many missing “self-closing mechanisms”, which are vital in ensuring that fire do not spread from one flat to another and allow people to escape safely.