The inquiry into the Grenfell Tower fire has detailed how disabled residents were failed repeatedly by both London Fire Brigade and the organisation that managed the building on behalf of a local authority.
The Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) said the inquiry’s first report, which was published yesterday, “shows the Grenfell community, including its disabled residents, were failed by the authorities that had a legal duty to protect them”.
The report on phase one of the inquiry focuses on the events that took place on the night of the fire, which began in the early hours of 14 June 2017 in a flat in Grenfell Tower, which was owned by Kensington and Chelsea council and managed by the council’s Tenant Management Organisation (TMO).
It includes the inquiry’s findings on the response of London Fire Brigade and other emergency services to the fire that led to the loss of 72 lives in Grenfell Tower.
The report says the TMO’s emergency plan was 15 years out of date and so “contained materially inaccurate and out of date details of the numbers of vulnerable residents who would need assistance to evacuate in the event of an emergency”.
It says the emergency plan was “significantly out of date in a number of critical respects, not least in relation to the number of flats, the number of residents, the number of those with disabilities and the means of escape”.
The TMO’s chief executive, Robert Black, had confirmed to the inquiry in his evidence that evacuation plans for Grenfell Tower and many other council-owned properties had not been updated since 2002.
The report was also deeply critical of London Fire Brigade.
Among other criticisms, fire brigade control room operators (CROs) had not been trained to ask callers if they were disabled or for another reason would find it difficult to escape the fire.
The report on phase one of the inquiry into the fire says operators left it to most callers to volunteer this information themselves.
Some of the disabled residents did not share this information with the CROs, says the report.
The inquiry found that CROs “routinely failed to ask callers for their flat numbers, the number of people in the flat, and information about people whose mobility or other health or personal problems might impede their escape”.
But the report says this was not a surprise because London Fire Brigade’s policy documents did not require CROs to find out if a caller, or someone with them, was disabled or had a mobility impairment that would impede their ability to escape and meant they would need assistance in an evacuation.
The report also says there were no plans for evacuating the tower and for evacuating those who might need assistance, including disabled people.
Sir Martin Moore-Bick, who is chairing the inquiry, called on the government to develop national guidelines for evacuating high-rise residential buildings, which should include procedures for “evacuating persons who are unable to use the stairs in an emergency, or who may require assistance (such as disabled people, older people and young children)”.
The inquiry also says that it was a “matter of chance” which floors fire crews were sent to to rescue residents because of “incomplete information”, even though a senior fire brigade officer had “attempted to prioritise responses based on vulnerability and age”.
In fact, the officer responded to calls in the order they were received, says the report.
The inquiry will examine the TMO’s failure to keep the evacuation plan up-to-date in its second phase. Hearings for phase two are expected to begin in January 2020.
The inquiry report provides a detailed narrative of what happened at Grenfell Tower, from the time the fire was discovered, just before 1am, until the last survivor was evacuated, shortly after 8am.
Among the report’s tragic accounts of disabled residents who did not survive the fire is that of Hesham Rahman, who lived in flat 204 on the 23rd floor of Grenfell Tower.
The report details a series of telephone conversations he had with fire brigade CROs, who originally told him to stay in his flat.
By 2.36am, smoke was coming into his flat, but when a CRO suggested it might be better to leave his flat, he said he “could not see anything outside the door and had problems walking and so would need help on the stairs”.
Rahman had also phoned a relative at about the same time and told them the fire was approaching and that there was a lot of smoke in the flat.
He told a CRO at 3.10am that there was a lot of smoke coming into his flat and when he was advised to leave, he said he could not do so because he “could not see and he could not walk properly as he was disabled”.
He was told by a CRO: “I promise you they’re coming up to you, but it’s a big fire, OK? They’re gonna get there as quickly as they can.”
He was told to leave again by a different CRO 10 minutes later and he again said he could not escape because he was disabled.
This was the last call he made to the emergency services, but in two calls from someone calling on his behalf, CROs were first told that he was struggling to breathe and then that he was no longer answering his phone.
Rahman is listed as “deceased” in an annex to the report.
The Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) has previously found in its own report that disabled people who died in Grenfell Tower had their human rights breached by public bodies that failed to plan how they would evacuate their homes in the event of a fire.
The EHRC report found earlier this year that the safety of wheelchair-users and other disabled and older people was overlooked when they were housed on the top floors of Grenfell Tower.
An EHRC spokesperson said of this week’s report by the Grenfell inquiry: “This report shows the Grenfell community, including its disabled residents, were failed by the authorities that had a legal duty to protect them.
“We are however pleased that the inquiry recommendations include the development of national guidelines for evacuations of persons who are unable to use the stairs in an emergency or who may require assistance.
“As well as exploring the systemic failures that led to this terrible tragedy, it is important the inquiry and future recommendations continue to consider the safety of all residents, including those living with disabilities.”
Picture: Close-up of Grenfell Tower with banners in June 2018 (c) by Carcharoth is licensed under Creative CommonsAttribution-Share Alike 4.0 International