Scottish brigade chief hits out at criticism of Grenfell firefighters

Smoke billows from a fire that has engulfed the 24-storey Grenfell Tower in west London. Picture: Victoria Jones/PA Wire
Smoke billows from a fire that has engulfed the 24-storey Grenfell Tower in west London. Picture: Victoria Jones/PA Wire
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The head of the Scottish Fire and Rescue Service (SFRS) has warned it is neither “fair” nor “correct” to blame firefighters for the Grenfell Tower disaster.

Martin Blunden, chief officer of the national force, said it was “disappointing” to see the chairman of a public inquiry into the June 2017 tragedy conclude that fewer people would have died if the London Fire Brigade (LFB) had been better prepared.

Mr Blunden said it was “impossible” to verify such a claim and stressed that by the time LFB personnel were on the scene, it was “too late” to tackle the inferno at a tower block “wrapped in flammable material”.

An official report published last week into the fire, which claimed the lives of 72 people, reserved damning criticism for the LFB’s response.

The report, which marked the end of the first phase of the inquiry, pointed to “serious deficiencies” in LFB’s command control and said there was no contingency plan in place for the evacuation of the tower. It also singled out the brigade’s over-reliance on the so-called “stay put” strategy and said channels of communication between the control room and the ground were “improvised, uncertain and prone to error”.

The inquiry’s chairman, Sir Martin Moore-Bick, a retired appeal court judge, said fewer people would have died if the LFB had taken certain actions earlier and chastised the “remarkable insensitivity” of its commissioner, Dany Coton, after she gave evidence insisting she would not have done anything differently on the night.

Many survivors of the tragedy and those who lost loved ones have welcomed the report’s findings amid fears that Sir Martin would delay making significant conclusions until next year.

However, amid growing 
criticism of the report’s focus, Mr Blunden has become the latest senior figure to question the criticism directed at the LFB.

In a series of tweets posted yesterday, he said it was premature to suggest lives could have been saved depending on the actions of firefighters.

Mr Blunden said while there were always lessons to be learned from tragedies such as Grenfell, there was a danger of “subjecting 50:50 decisions to 20:20 hindsight”.

He wrote: “To say that more lives could have been saved is impossible to say at this stage and it is disappointing to read such a conclusion.

“I do not believe blaming LFB’s commissioner or any staff is fair or correct. I understand the desire of those mourning to apportion blame and find out why.”

Mr Blunden, a former deputy chief officer with South Yorkshire Fire and Rescue Service, who took up his role with the SFRS this year, added: “Before LFB attended it was too late; this tower block was wrapped in flammable material, it was alight, fire was spreading and compartmentation was failing.

“My question is how could this have been allowed to 
happen so that members of 
the public were not protected.”

In response to the inquiry report, Ms Coton said that while many of the recommendations were “welcome”, she was “disappointed” at some of the criticism of individual staff members who were placed in “completely unprecedented circumstances”.

Matt Wrack, general secretary of the Fire Brigades Union, has also questioned the inquiry process.

He said no one was trying to avoid scrutiny, but suggested the ordering of the inquiry 
was “completely back to front” and did not focus on the 
issues of the building’s construction.

“The truth is that the fire spread the way it did because it was wrapped in flammable cladding,” he said.

“The firefighters turned up after that had happened, after the building had already been turned, in reality, into a death trap.”

More than £50 million has been spent so far on the public inquiry. The overall figure is more than 150 times greater than the savings made by replacing the fire-retardant cladding on the tower block with cheaper combustible panels.

Hearings for the second phase of the inquiry will start in January. It will focus on wider circumstances of the fire, including the design of the building.

Up to March, the inquiry held 123 days of hearings with more than 140 witnesses.

It has received and reviewed more than 500,000 documents, of which more than 200,000 are expected to be disclosed to core participants.