What Can Portsmouth Learn from the Grenfell Tower Fire?

Image by Editor 5807, via a Public Domain license on Wikipedia.

S&C Editor in Chief, Sarah Cheverton reports on the local crewing and deployment of ALPs – vehicles designed to tackle high rise fires – as lessons for Portsmouth continue to emerge from the Grenfell Tower fire.

Aerial Ladder Platforms or ALPs are vehicles with long ladders or platforms to reach fires in high buildings. BBC Newsnight recently reported that a high ladder or ALP did not arrive at the Grenfell Tower fire for over 30 minutes.

An independent fire expert has said having the ladder, also known as an “aerial”, available earlier would have given firefighters a better chance of stopping the blaze on 14 June getting out of control.

The London Fire Brigade says it has changed its procedures since the fire, and that a high ladder will now automatically be sent to a fire in a tower.

In Portsmouth, the deployment and crewing of the ALP caused controversy in January 2017, following cuts of 16 fire officer posts from Southsea Fire Station that reduced the number on each of the 4 watches by 4 officers per watch.

In January, Hampshire FBU and Portsmouth Liberal Democrat Party voiced concerns that the cuts would affect the crewing of Southsea Fire Station’s ALP, intended for use in any high-rise fire in Portsmouth.

Firefighters said that, in response to staffing cuts, Hampshire Fire and Rescue Service had allocated the ALP in Southampton to high rise fires in Portsmouth rather than allocating staff to allow the deployment of the ALP from Southsea. In the event of a fire, dispatching the ALP from Southampton to Portsmouth would take at least 20 minutes.

Portsmouth City Council leader, Donna Jones, rejected the public concerns of firefighters and Lib Dem councillors, telling The News,

I have had reassurance that no lives are at risk in Portsmouth by senior fire officers. This is the union and Lib Dems using the recent changes for political gain.

Speaking recently in Durham, General Secretary of the FBU, Matt Wrack, dismissed attacks on the Union and its members by the press, highlighting that the vast majority of firefighters who responded to the Grenfell Tower fire were ‘almost to a man and a woman … members of the Fire Brigades Union.’

Following continued lobbying from the FBU and Lib Dem councillors, the ALP was returned to the pre-determined attendance for high rise fires in Portsmouth (the number of fire engines automatically sent to a fire), rather than deploying the ALP from Southampton.

However, the Southsea ALP still does not have a dedicated crew.

At a Fire Authority meeting in February 2016 about the deployment of the ALP, deputy leader of the City Council and member of the Hampshire Fire and Rescue Authority, Luke Stubbs said:

…when you have a piece of equipment [the ALP] that is deployed just over once per month, it seems disproportionate to crew for that function.

we have to balance risk, basically, with cost and resources.

Earlier this month, S&C contacted Cllr Luke Stubbs to ask if he stood by this quote following the Grenfell Tower fire. He told us:

Yes and the ALP is still part of the fire cover in Portsmouth.

It is worth remembering that the changes in the risk review were all developed by senior fire officers, all of whom have extensive experience in fire fighting. They would not put forward any proposal that endanger[s] the public.

The level of deployment of the ALP is much less than commonly supposed and as with any major incident, crews from elsewhere in Hampshire would be available to help and provide backfill cover.

As reported by S&C earlier this year, between January and December 2016, the ALP was called out approximately 75 times, an average of more than 6 times each month.

Liberal Democrat Councillor Steve Pitt disagrees with Councillor Stubbs’ view on current staffing of the ALP. He told S&C:

We absolutely should have a permanent crew on the ALP.

S&C also contacted Hampshire Fire and Rescue Service to ask about the crewing arrangements for the ALP vehicle. They said,

The Southsea ALP does not have a dedicated crew but is flexibly crewed with other vehicles depending on what is required at a specific incident. This is standard practice across Hampshire and is the norm across other fire and rescue services.

The wellbeing of our firefighters is of paramount importance to HFRS as we work to keep the communities of Hampshire safe.

However, new research by the FBU has revealed ‘a postcode lottery’ across the country with regard to the ability of fire crews to respond ‘promptly and professionally to life threatening tower block fires’:

‘Differing levels of resources around the country mean that the “pre-determined attendance” (PDA) to a fire – the number of fire engines that should automatically be sent to a fire or other incident – varies greatly according to its location.

While some areas of the country have a PDA with no aerial platforms at all, the FBU confirmed that Hampshire has a PDA of 8 fire engines and an aerial vehicle.

The crewing of ALP vehicles was raised as a specific concern by the FBU in its research:

Crewing levels can also vary between four or five firefighters per fire engine. Very worryingly, the new research shows that although there are 125 aerial ladder/platform vehicles in England, only 26% of them (33) are available 24/7 due to a lack of fire crews.

Southsea’s ALP is one of the majority in the country not to be permanently crewed with two fire fighters, following staff cuts that were part of the Hampshire Fire and Rescue Service’s risk review.

The ‘flexible crewing’ referred to in Hampshire Fire and Rescue Service’s statement to S&C now means that, if the ALP is needed at a high rise fire, two fire fighters will leave another vehicle undeployed in order to crew the ALP. Over 200 hundred fire fighters using 40 engines and specialist vehicles responded to the Grenfell Tower Fire.

A recent circular from the FBU sets out the minimum standards for an initial response to residential flats in tower blocks as follows:

  • 2 pumps (each with a crew of 5) in no longer than 5 minutes from time of call.
  • 3 further pumps (each with a crew of 5) in no longer than 8 minutes from time of call.
  • An aerial (high reach) appliance (with a minimum crew of 2) in no longer than 10 minutes from time of call.

At present, Hampshire Fire & Rescue Service fire engines predominantly turn out with a crew of four firefighters, with two firefighters on the ALP.

FBU leader Matt Wrack condemned the cumulative impact of austerity and privatisation of public services over the last 30 years – under both Conservative and New Labour governments – as a cause of the Grenfell Tower fire.

We will find [the Grenfell Tower fire] is the result of a series of…political decisions.

…When all those things happen over the years, then you create the environment where this terrible, terrible tragedy can happen.

 

This report forms part of S&C’s renewed focus on investigative, critical journalism and our continuing mission to create a sustainable and  robust local press without compromising editorial independence through advertising or ‘advertorial’ (articles that have been paid for by businesses for promotional purposes).

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  • It should also be remembered that Hampshire Fire Authority is planning to replace two thirds of the County’s fire engines with smaller vehicles, which may only be crewed by two or three firefighters. That is dangerous for firefighters and the public.

    The reason the ALPs do not attend that many calls, is not that they would not be useful at incidents, it is because they are not sent to save a small amount of money. Firefighters are then faced with requesting them and having to wait for them to arrive, or using less effective and less safe options to rescue people or fight fires. Too often they opt for the less effective and less safe option. In most European and North American cities, aerial appliances attend all building fires and provide an invaluable service.

    It is Donna Jones and Luke Stubbs who are deceiving the public for political gain. If the crew for the ALP is sent out on other vehicles, then it becomes unavailable. An essential and expensive asset will sit there unused, whilst another one has to travel many miles. This is simply gambling with people’s safety.