The London fire brigade was part of “the most appalling example of institutional failure … in recent British history” at Grenfell Tower, the organisation’s current leader has admitted.
Andy Roe, the London fire commissioner since last year, told the public inquiry into the 2017 blaze that killed 72 people that the brigade knew about the key risks that combined to cause the disaster. But he said it had failed to join up the information and officers had not been sufficiently trained to react after the “shock” of such a major building failure.
Under cross-examination by counsel to the inquiry, 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 featured a jokey picture of a firefighter rescuing a semi-naked woman.
Roe has previously told the Guardian the London fire brigade (LFB) needed to face up to 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 inquiry that the fire was as foreseeable as “a space shuttle landing on the Shard”.
She told the inquiry: “We had a lot of organisational knowledge. But I still think that even now the knowledge held by the London and UK fire service would not have anticipated such a catastrophic failure.”
Roe, who revoked the “stay put” policy blamed for costing lives as soon as he took control at 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 of Grenfell specifically, we knew that there was potential risk of wholesale failure of compartmentation.
“We knew 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 involving loss of life. But I am not sure we joined those things together in a way that really articulated those risks to officers.”
He said “the scale and the extremity” of the failure was difficult to predict, but he added the fatal 2009 fire at Lakanal House in Southwark had shown the risks of non-compliant facade panels, sudden fire-growth such panels can cause, and smoke-spread from the compartment of origin – all things that happened at Grenfell. The inquiry also heard how, in 2009, the then London fire commissioner, Ron Dobson, was concerned enough to suggest the government warn all housing providers to check that their high-rise cladding met 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 to officers who arrived at the fire. It was their ability to join that information up and make decisions with lateral thought.”
Roe, 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 at a home of a Somali family.
“He said, ‘God, those Pakistanis’ – he used a vernacular term for that that I wouldn’t want to repeat in this setting,” Roe recalled. “He said: ‘They breed like rabbits.’ I said: ‘I hope so mate because I just married one.’ There was a tumbleweed moment.”
Asked about the culture of LFB’s “watches” (the teams that staff stations on rotating shifts) he was also shown a training slideshow from 5 January 2017 about handling calls from people trapped in burning buildings. It featured a Hollywood-style picture of a firefighter rescuing a semi-naked woman with the caption “Blue Watch (Standard Night Shift)”.
He said it was “unacceptable”. “If you are women encountering this training you would not feel comfortable, you would not feel included.”
But he said it wasn’t evidence that fire survival guidance calls were not taken seriously.
The inquiry continues.