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‘Wrong sort of inspection’ at Chalcots missed fire dangers

Exclusive: Camden's hired fire safety advisers and the London Fire Brigade say wider checks were not part of their brief

06 July, 2017 — By William McLennan

THE company hired to carry out Chalcots fire safety checks believes the estate is no more dangerous than most high-rises – and, after watching people being asked to leave their homes, its boss said “on that basis every tower block in the UK should be evacuated”.

Phil Williams, director of Eurocompliance, was speaking after residents and politicians demanded to know why a series of failings that led Camden Council to move 4,000 people from their homes had not been identified sooner.

The New Journal can today (Thursday) reveal that checks by the fire brigade and Mr Williams’ firm did not cover the key failings that led to the urgent evacuation. Camden says it is investigating why potential risks were missed, but Eurocompliance and the fire brigade insist they were not included in their brief.

It comes with council leader Georgia Gould already admitting that some of the dangers were relayed to her by tenants rather than qualified experts.

The fire brigade went into the Chalcots to do “enhanced checks” on June 23 after the towers’ cladding was found to be flammable, leading to the discovery that incorrectly installed gas mains had created gaps between floors and walls through which smoke and flames could travel. This failing – described as a breach of the buildings “compartmentation” design – was not picked up in Eurocompliance’s fire risk assessment carried out at Taplow tower in April 2016.

Mr Williams told the New Journal: “I can tell you that buildings at the Chalcots estate, 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 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 of the kind commissioned by Camden Council takes “close to a day” for each block. “When you do a fire risk assessment you are not going to pick up every single hole,” he said. “We would have advised that you need to get inside the flats to see what’s happening. We just recently did that at Blashford.”

A summary of the company’s fire risk assessment, published by the New Journal last week, did advise the council to “service communal fire doors” and “improve residential fire doors”, as well as recommending installing “slip-proof stairs”. Camden has ordered 1,000 new fire doors in the wake of the Chalcots evacuation.

Mr Williams said: “Camden already knew there was an issue which they had in their planned programme of works. They already knew and they were going around doing the works.” The New Journal has learned that the fire brigade had also inspected four of the five towers – Taplow, Dorney, Bray and Burnham – in recent years, but did not identify compartmentation breaches that have now been uncovered. The brigade said that, under government guidelines, the inspections carried out at the Adelaide Road blocks, known as a “sampling audit”, would not include a physical inspection of the building’s compartmentation.

These audits are “not a full inspection of all the fire precautions throughout the building as that is the responsibility of the occupier/landlord”, the brigade said in a statement when asked by the New Journal why the issues had not been discovered earlier.

It added: “The more thorough inspections being carried out currently by our Inspecting Officers following recent events also include a physical check of the fire resisting protection to the building, and between flats and the escape routes – including flat front doors, above false ceilings and within voids and utility cupboards.” Despite not having been covered by the fire brigade and risk assessment firms, concerns around compartmentation had been repeatedly raised by residents in recent years.

During a meeting on cladding at Swiss Cottage library the day before evacuation, tenant Carole Nolan warned: “The integrity of each pod – flat – has been compromised by the drilling of the pipelines for water, for electricity.”

Speaking at special meeting on the Chalcots evacuation at the Town Hall on Monday night, Councillor Claire-Louise Leyland, leader of Camden Conservatives, said: “We’d like to look at the enhanced safety checks, but I think we’d also like to see the ones that were done previously. There have obviously been issues with these blocks for quite some time. Many of us are wondering how we didn’t know. If we did know, why things didn’t happen.”

Cllr Gould admitted that tenants had warned her of the dangers before they were discovered by the fire brigade. She pledged to hand direct oversight to tenants of safety issues in their homes. “Everything they told me turned out to be right,” she said.

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.

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