London’s fire department was part of “the most horrific example of institutional failure … in recent British history” at Grenfell Tower, the organisation’s current leader has admitted.
Andy Roe, London’s fire commissioner since last year, told the 2017 public inquiry into the fire that killed 72 people that the brigade knew of the key risks that together caused the disaster. But he said the information had not been collected and that officers had not been adequately trained to respond to the “shock” of such a major building defect.
During cross-examination of the lawyer for the investigation, Richard Millett QC, Roe also revealed how he had witnessed racism from a colleague after a fire involving a family from the Somali community. And he condemned as “unacceptable” a training package from early 2017 that included a jokey image of a firefighter rescuing a half-naked woman.
Roe has previously told the Guardian that the London Fire Brigade (LFB) had to face racism and misogyny in its ranks.
His evidence came after his predecessor, Dany Cotton, who was in charge at the time of Grenfell, last week had to qualify her 2018 claim to the investigation that the fire was as predictable as “a space shuttle landing on Shard”.
She said to the inquiry: “We had a lot of organizational knowledge. But I still believe that even now the knowledge of the London and British fire brigades would not have foreseen such a catastrophic failure.
Roe, who revoked the “keep quiet” policy that was accused of costing human lives as soon as he took control of Grenfell, was more critical of the service he now leads.
“We were aware of risks that existed in the operational environment,” he said. “If you think about Grenfell specifically, we knew there was a potential risk of wholesale defects in the division.
“We were aware of the dangers of poor maintenance and management of buildings; the possible involvement of utilities in a fire; the very real possibility of a very large fire in London with loss of human life. But I’m not sure we united these things in a way that really articulated these risks for the officers. “
He said the “extent and extremity” of the fault was difficult to predict, but added that the fatal fire in 2009 at Lakanal House in Southwark had shown the risk of incompatible facade panels, sudden fire growth that such panels could cause, and smoke spreading from the room of origin – everything that happened at Grenfell. The inquiry also heard how London’s then-fire commissioner Ron Dobson in 2009 was concerned enough to suggest that the government warn all housing providers to check that their high-rise buildings complied with building regulations.
“That night is an example of what happens when people are in shock and have to make decisions,” Roe said. “Many elements of the fire were known by officers who arrived at the fire. It was their ability to gather that information and make decisions with lateral thoughts.”
Roe, who is part of a mixed-heritage family, firmly denied that elements of racism in the LFB affected the way it handled fires involving people from ethnic minorities. But he described a conversation with a colleague in the fire truck after a fire in a home of a Somali family.
“He said, ‘God, the Pakistanis’ – he used a linguistic term for it, which I do not want to repeat in this context,” Roe recalled. “He said, ‘They breed like rabbits.’ I said, ‘I hope so, buddy, because I just got married.’ There was a tumbleweed moment. “
Asked about the culture of LFB’s “clocks” (the teams that staff stations on rotating shifts), he was also shown a training slide show from January 5, 2017 about handling calls from people trapped in burning buildings. It featured a Hollywood-style image of a firefighter rescuing a half-naked woman with the caption “Blue Watch (Standard Night Shift)”.
He said it was “unacceptable”. “If you’re women meeting this workout, you would not feel comfortable, you would not feel included.”
But he said there was no evidence that calls for fire survival were not taken seriously.
The investigation continues.