Grenfell fire chief was not trained in tower escapes

Grenfell Tower was reclad with panels that experts found to be highly combustible. Picture: Leon Neal/Getty
Grenfell Tower was reclad with panels that experts found to be highly combustible. Picture: Leon Neal/Getty
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The firefighter in charge of the initial Grenfell Tower response has told an inquiry he would have been unable to spot a cladding fire at the time of the disaster.

Michael Dowden, the watch manager with North Kensington red watch, was the first incident commander on the scene when the inferno began on 14 June 2017.

He revealed yesterday that he received no training on evacuating tall buildings with a stay-put policy, such as Grenfell Tower, nor had he learnt the lessons of previous cladding fires.

This included guidance from the London Fire Brigade in July 2016 stressing the “need to understand what products are being used in the facade system and their fire behaviour”.

Richard Millett QC, lead counsel to the inquiry, asked the 14-year veteran of the brigade, who had inspected Grenfell Tower during its final refurbishment: “As of June 2017, were you aware of that?”

“No, no, I wasn’t,” he replied.

His position as watch commander meant he would usually only be incident commander for fires requiring four pumps, meaning four fire engines.

It emerged at the inquiry that the first crew to tackle the blaze might have been using information about Grenfell Tower that was years out of date. Mr Dowden said he printed off a tactical plan, including details about floor numbers and number of tenants, from October 2009 – long before it was refurbished. The watch manager said he wasn’t “able to confirm” that it was the same document, but added: “I can only presume that is as it was on the night.”

In the plan, 20 floors were shown, not the 23 floors of flats post-refit. He was asked about the mobile data terminal (MDT) in the fire engine, which would have provided information about the block.

“I can’t say that at that moment in point I learnt anything, to be honest,” he said, referring to the drive to the building. I had had a familiarisation visit at Grenfell Tower. Nothing sticks out in my mind – information – from the MDT, that I learnt anything.”

A fire at a high-rise block in 2016, attended by Mr Dowden, had seen flames climb from the flat of origin up a cladding system, prompting the LFB to warn all councils about flammable facade materials. That same year, Grenfell Tower was reclad with panels that experts found to be highly combustible, a feature Mr Dowden admitted he “cannot recall” investigating during a visit in February.

He said in a written statement to the inquiry that he saw the fire “sparking and spitting in a similar way to when magnesium burns and it was making me feel uncomfortable”.

The inquiry will continue hearing evidence from Mr Dowden from 9:30am today.