Knee-Jerk Evacuations

While I was in Germany I read that thousands of people were being evacuated from tower blocks in the UK after it was found they had the same cladding as the Grenfell Tower.

It started as a normal Friday night in north London. Some people were down the pub, others were watching TV or eating dinner. In some flats children were doing homework, preparing for exams.

But over the space of the following few hours around 3,000 people on the Chalcots estate were told to leave their homes and get out – immediately.

The call to evacuate came from Camden council after London Fire Brigade told it the safety of residents “could not be guaranteed”.

I am absolutely amazed that more hasn’t been made of the unfathomable levels of stupidity in this decision. My only explanation is that a lot of people find it sensible.

Suppose a passenger ship in the mid-Atlantic gets word that its sister ship has sunk with all souls lost because of a fire in the engine room. What does the captain do? Does he give an abandon ship order and have everyone take to the lifeboats? No, he doesn’t, because that would put the passengers in more danger. He would instead post a watch in the engine room, put his crew on full-alert for a possible fire and abandonment, maybe cut back on the throttle a bit, close the bar, and either complete the voyage as planned or set sail for the nearest port with suitable passenger-handling facilities. Even if there was a fire he’d not abandon ship: he’d attempt to get his crew to fight it first, while having everyone on standby to get the lifeboats launched. If he panicked and launched the lifeboats at the first word of a potential fire, he’d go down in history as one of the worst captains ever to take command.

Back in 2010 the engine of a Qantas A380 failed, forcing it to return to Singapore and make an emergency landing. The result was the grounding of all A380 aircraft using those engines while inspections were carried out and Rolls-Royce consulted. Note that these other planes were not immediately ordered to make emergency landings: that would have seriously endangered the passengers.

The evacuation of towers with similar cladding to that of the Grenfell Tower is a decision made in panic with seemingly no consideration of actual risk. It is the equivalent of the captain ordering everyone into the lifeboats too early or planes making emergency landings. Yes, the cladding is dangerous – but only once a fire has occurred in a flat and reached the outside. Resources and efforts would be far better spent on ensuring these two don’t occur – information campaign, inspections, temporary fire-fighting measures, posted watches – than ordering everyone out of their homes immediately.

Perhaps a risk analysis would recommend people evacuate, but none would say this needs to be done immediately. The risk might have been high, but it was not imminent: anyone who understood risk and safety ought to have known this, and been aware that ordering unnecessary emergency evacuations would put the residents in greater danger than leaving them in situ. Firstly, emergency evacuations and temporary housing are stressful and not good for people’s overall wellbeing, and secondly next time they’re told to move immediately some people might conclude it’s just a bureaucrat covering his arse.

The situation required cool heads and mature decisions, instead we’ve got headline-grabbing knee-jerk reactions. The people running things have not got a grip on how to manage risks in residential properties, but then we knew that already: we have a burned-out shell and dozens dead as proof. But what it shows is the clowns in charge haven’t learned anything in the aftermath: an irrational approach to risk and safety is still dangerous whether it comes in the form of callous neglect or panicked decisions.

Incidentally, this:

German authorities on Tuesday evacuated a high-rise apartment building in the western city of Wuppertal, over fire safety fears in the wake of London’s Grenfell Tower tragedy.

Wuppertal authorities said they had carried out a fire safety review following the Grenfell inferno, which left 79 people presumed dead, and found that the insulation on an 11-storey building posed a risk as it is flammable.

So much for the idea that the oh-so-clever and perfectly-regulated Germans would avoid a tragedy like the Grenfell Tower, eh? Some proper journalism wouldn’t go amiss occasionally, would it?

Share

17 thoughts on “Knee-Jerk Evacuations

  1. Company selling flammable insulation all over EU. Only Germany reacts to risk.

  2. ‘We must do something!’

    ‘Well, this is something, but it’s over-reactive and potentially stu-‘

    ‘Will it look like we’re being responsible in the media?’

    ‘Well, yes, but only if you’re a mor-‘

    ‘DO IT NOW!’

  3. Germany will be interesting because high (or at least medium) rise is probably what most people live in. Certainly vastly more than in the UK. And they have all undergone an expensive cladding programme in the last 10 years.

    It’s inevitable that some will have been done dangerously, but how many is the question.

    Yes, pace Volkswagen, Berlin Brandenburg Airport, Elbphilharmonie, Stuttgart 21, Cologne library (and all the other German engineering disasters, frauds, and cost overruns).

  4. I seen that and seen the lady in charge explaining how and why she made her what she thought was a courageous decision to get them out now.

    Very Orwellian.

  5. @BIG

    Yet ask a typical Brit and the assumption seems to be that Germany is a place where “everything just works”. Is the federal government deploying some absolutely top-rate international PR people, or are we all just blinded by the stereotypes we’ve made?

  6. Is the federal government deploying some absolutely top-rate international PR people, or are we all just blinded by the stereotypes we’ve made?

    Good point: I suspect the latter, coupled with a seemingly insatiable desire to denigrate our own country and culture and praise others we have little knowledge of.

  7. @MyBurningEars let me venture a guess, founded on absolutely nothing: deep down there is a widespread feeling that it should be possible to make that big government good for something, what with all the money it’s gobbling up. And since there is no way it can be the government you observe every day, it must be some other government out there. At which point it suffices for the German one not to be an appaling disaster people the world over are well aware of.

    The same shite was widespread in the USSR before its collapse: clearly THAT socialism was not working, but there HAD TO BE some other, good socialism out there, Sweden or whatever.

  8. The difference is that in Germany, graft is allegedly widespread at the top but nonexistent at lower levels. Try bunging a petty official and you will go to jail. Try bribing the boss of one of the world’s biggest electronics/car/ construction companies, or skimming government contracts, and you might well succeed.

    Allegedly.

  9. Or evading taxes as a major sportsman, accepting dodgy political donations, smuggling untaxed Rolexes through customs, using football clubs as money-laundering fronts etc. The houses are probably almost all safe, there isn’t a landlord big enough to have someone high up enough who thinks that profit skimming by replacing materials with substandard is worth the risk of getting caught.

  10. The difference is that in Germany, graft is widespread at the top but nonexistent at lower levels. Try bunging a petty official and you will go to jail. Try bribing the boss of one of the world’s biggest electronics/car/ construction companies, or skimming government contracts, and you might well succeed.

    France is like that. No chance you can bribe a functionnaire at the prefecture to speed up your driving license application, but if you want to build a giant shopping centre on the outskirts of a town you’ll probably find the local mayor expects a cut.

  11. The difference is that in Germany, graft is widespread at the top but nonexistent at lower levels.

    France is like that…

    The whole goshdarn Western world is like that.

  12. Moving them out exports the risk elsewhere, the council does not need to consider if the risk is greater… and probably has no way to measure the risk.

    This nonsense happens all the time in many industries,
    The railways run replacement bus services to reduce the risk to a handfull of track workers, but ignore the increased risk to 1000’s of passengers.
    Gunpowder manufacturing was moved to the Far-East to improve the safety of British workers, but ignoring how the overall risk, and number of deaths/injuries has been increased.
    Pharmaceutical research moving from the U.K. / U.S. partly because of the costs incurred because of the safety legislation.
    I describe it as looking at safety through a microscope when a telescope would be more appropriate.

  13. The justification for the evacuation of the Camden blocks was apparently not just the cladding but the removal of loads of fire doors. Legal arse-covering, probably.

    I was surprised to learn from a relative living in Germany that he had had to bribe (literally 500 euros in a brown paper envelope handed over where there would be no evidence of this) a doctor to be seen for the treatment of a rare genetic condition. On the other hand under the NHS he’d just have been kept waiting forever or ignored. This overt – and low-level bribery (which, having lived in Ukraine, I’m accustomed to in other circumstances and societies) didn’t match my perceptions of “how things are done in Germany” at all.

  14. This overt – and low-level bribery (which, having lived in Ukraine, I’m accustomed to in other circumstances and societies) didn’t match my perceptions of “how things are done in Germany” at all.

    There are a few places which are a lot more corrupt than you’d think. I’ve heard Swedish business is a lot more murky than you’d expect for Scandinavia, and remember it was Switzerland who not only housed FIFA but also gave us Sepp Blatter and uttered not a peep.

  15. Moving them out exports the risk elsewhere, the council does not need to consider if the risk is greater… and probably has no way to measure the risk.

    That’s exactly it: they have no way to measure the risk, just as they didn’t when the put the cladding on. Rather than getting themselves acquainted with risk management or hiring people who were, they set about chasing diversity and recycling targets and spending money on other useless subjects.

Comments are closed.