Over the past 24 hours social media seems to have been inundated with experts on structural engineering and fire protection. I am no expert in either, but I know a bit about the latter – a career in oil and gas will leave you with more knowledge on fires and explosions than most. I probably know more about structural engineering than most people, too.
When I was involved in the construction of a residential unit in Sakhalin, I was told the fire protection was not there to protect the asset, it was to buy enough time for everyone to evacuate. Once everyone is out – well, let it burn, claim the insurance, and build another one. Of course, it was designed not to burn, but if it did the priority was to get everyone out ASAP. Being owned by an oil company, the unit we built had alarms and a full evacuation plan.
I have no idea what the philosophy was in the Grenfell Tower, but it should have been to get everyone out ASAP in the event of a fire: you hear the alarm, everyone evacuates, the firemen turn up to see what’s what. From what I’m hearing, people believed they should stay in their apartments because the flats were designed to contain fires, or something like that. Even if they were designed to contain fires, you should still evacuate. Yes, it’s a pain in the arse standing in the carpark in your pyjamas at 1am, but it’s better than burning to death.
Back when I worked for a Shell-affiliated company, an email went around about two Shell employees who were staying in a hotel in (I think) India. When you work for a major oil company, particularly Shell, safety is dinned into you from day one to the point that it becomes second-nature even outside your workplace. Next time you see Rex Tillerson boarding or disembarking from a plane, notice how he always holds the handrail: he got that from ExxonMobil. Anyway, these two guys were in their hotel rooms when the fire alarm went off. Most people would have just thought “sod it” and stayed in bed, but these boys were good little soldiers and grabbed their passports and left via the fire escape. They got outside and found the whole building was alight, and some people died. Shell saw fit to circulate this in an email, and it made an impression on me. If you hear an alarm, get the hell out of there. Better to look a fool than be dead.
Anyway, my point is that fire protection is usually installed to slow down the spread of a fire, and give people enough time to get out. A lot of people are asking why sprinkler systems weren’t installed in the Grenfell Tower. Contrary to what most people think, sprinkler systems are not supposed to extinguish fires: they are activated by heat and designed to keep surfaces cool, thus preventing the fire from spreading. You know when you see the firemen spraying water at a fire? Most of the time they’re not aiming it at the flames, they’re soaking the areas around it. They don’t have enough water to put the fire out, so the best they can do is try to keep the surrounding surfaces cool enough so it won’t spread. Eventually the fire will spread, if it’s hot enough and there is enough fuel, but it will take more time and hopefully everyone will be out by then. All the firemen do from then is to try to stop the building collapsing and the fire spreading to other properties.
I doubt there are many residential buildings in the world which have the sort of evacuation procedures you see in offices and hotels. Perhaps this will change, or at the very least people will be advised to evacuate rather than stay in their apartments. There is not much point installing sprinkler systems which buy people time to evacuate if everyone is staying put.
I confess I was surprised that the cladding was flammable. This is a rather colossal failure of the building regulations, and raises the question how much of this stuff has been installed already. Quite a bit, would be my guess. It is possible to get cladding which has insulating properties and is also fireproof, and we use it extensively on oil and gas facilities. It is usually a form of mineral wool, but it is probably too expensive for large-scale residential use. You also need to keep the stuff dry: it isn’t much good when sopping wet, meaning the external cladding needs to be watertight, i.e. properly designed and installed.
I have heard reports that £9m was spent refurbishing the Grenfell Tower recently. What isn’t clear is how much of that went on purchasing certified materials and paying qualified, experienced tradesmen and how much went on kickbacks, admin fees, consultancy, fees, and audits to ensure the companies involved had diverse management teams and recycled their office waste properly. As I learned in Russia, spending $50m on a building doesn’t always give you $50m worth of building.
Finally, Twitter user Old Holborn has discovered that the monthly rent in the Grenfell Tower was £1,625 per month. It might be slightly less now, but this is London so perhaps not. I’m wondering why this tower, sitting in one of the most expensive boroughs in the country and consisting mainly of social housing, was occupied almost exclusively by immigrants from the poorest parts of the world. Actually, I know the answer to that.
This whole incident raises so many questions it’s hard to know where to begin.
On Thursday, the first victim of the fire was named as Syrian refugee Mohammed Alhajali, 23.
In a statement, the Syria Solidarity Campaign said Mr Alhajali, a civil engineering student, had been in a flat on the 14th floor when the fire broke out, and had spent two hours on the phone to a friend in Syria.
He had been trying to get through to his family while he was waiting to be rescued.
“Mohammed came to this country for safety and the UK failed to protect him,” the group said.