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Did the fire brigade fail? Grenfell documentary examines role of the service

A banner with a green heart is wrapped around the Grenfell Tower one year on since the blaze, which claimed 72 lives (Victoria Jones/PA)
A banner with a green heart is wrapped around the Grenfell Tower one year on since the blaze, which claimed 72 lives (Victoria Jones/PA)

London Fire Brigade (LFB) commissioner Dany Cotton is facing renewed criticism in a documentary exploring whether systematic mistakes at the Grenfell Tower fire “let both residents and firefighters down”.

In the Channel 4 Dispatches show titled Grenfell: Did The Fire Brigade Fail?, the brigade is accused of relying on a narrative about the June 2017 blaze being unprecedented to avoid being challenged over its failure to learn from previous fires.

The programme also claims, after analysing evidence from the public inquiry – including 999 calls, that up to 55 people died after being told to stay put by phone operators who had no real-time information about the fire.

Survivors of the fire, which killed 72 people, told Channel 4 that saving lives should have been a priority once it quickly became clear flames were racing up the block’s exterior.

Responding to the programme, which will air on Monday evening, one of the survivors and bereaved campaign groups Grenfell United said Ms Cotton had “steadfastly refused” to acknowledge any failures.

It also said she needed to explain why families were not believed about the spread of the fire, a lack of communication with 999 operators and why the Commissioner did not “take charge” when she arrived.

The LFB has briefed firefighters not to talk to journalists about the night, but one employee spoke to Channel 4 anonymously.

He said there was insufficient training given about evacuating entire buildings and criticised Ms Cotton for telling the public inquiry preparing for Grenfell was akin to planning for a space shuttle landing on the Shard.

He told the programme: “It really annoyed me straight afterwards because everyone was … ‘this fire is unprecedented’. We had a lot of that. I think that’s [the] narrative that they want you to think because that kind of suggests that no one’s responsible.

“But the warning signs were there. We could have learnt these lessons. The stuff that the Coroner recommended from Lakanal House would have given (Grenfell fire chief) Michael (Dowden) the tools he needed to recognise that that building was not acting how it should have acted. We could see this coming.”

He was referring to recommendations made after a fire in a block of flats in 2009 where six people died after fire spread through multiple compartments.

Reacting to the documentary, Grenfell United said: ”Firefighters saved lives but they were let down, just as we were, because their leaders failed to learn lessons from previous fires and to step up to make critical decisions on the night.”

A photograph taken by firefighter Brett Loft at the scene of the Grenfell Tower fire in June 2017 (Grenfell Tower Inquiry/PA)
A photograph taken by firefighter Brett Loft at the scene of the Grenfell Tower fire in June 2017 (Grenfell Tower Inquiry/PA)

The group continued: “Dany Cotton has so far steadfastly refused to acknowledge any failures.

“That attitude must change if survivors and bereaved families are to rest knowing that everything will be done to make sure a tragedy like this never happens again.”

An LFB spokeswoman said: “Our thoughts are with the Grenfell community. It’s essential to understand what happened on the night.

“We are listening, we are learning and already making changes. We all need to learn about the cause and response to the fire to prevent such an incident happening again.

“We strongly believe drawing conclusions before the public inquiry, police investigation and our own investigation, could be prejudicial, which is why we could not take part in this programme.

“Our staff acted on what they faced that night and not on what we have learnt subsequently about why and how the fire spread with such devastating consequences.”

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