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Serious failings in high rise fire safety at Stretford House uncovered by tenant’s investigation

A former Fire Safety Officer, Phillip Murphy, living in the high rise Stretford House  in Trafford  has compiled a damning report on fire safety management at the high rise block, which is a Trafford Housing Trust property. Murphy acquired a copy of the Fire Risk Assessment for the building after the Grenfell tragedy. Expecting from previous experience to find no more than 20 recommendations for fire safety improvements, he was horrified to find 44 – eight of which were of the most serious nature, requiring immediate attention.

The report calls into the question the fire safety management of all high rise blocks across Greater Manchester and the UK, whether they have cladding or not. Stretford House (SH) does not have cladding, and plans to install it will likely be put on hold until the Grenfell inquest is published. It is the many other decisions and elements that go towards building an effective fire safety strategy that are called into question and found wanting.

Murphy is chair of the Stretford House Tenants and Residents Association (SHTRA), an experienced building manager, health and safety practitioner and previously served 12 years with the Greater Manchester Fire and Rescue Service as a Firefighter and Fire Safety Officer (FSO). On 14 June Murphy was as shocked as the rest of the world to see the horror of Grenfell Tower unfold as it was broadcast across all media outlets.

Grenfell was Murphy’s worst nightmare turned into a terrifying reality. For over a year he had been raising concerns about poor fire safety management at 23 storey SH, which has a single stairwell, and earlier this year had raised concerns over the fire risk from electric dryers in the building. Hotpoint, Indesit and other brands had reissued a recall of dryers that were likely to cause firesearly in 2017. A faulty electrical appliance has been identified as the source of the blaze at Grenfell.

On 16 June Murphy and the SHTRA attended a meeting with senior Trafford Housing Trust (THT) managers and local MP Kate Green to discuss fire safety in SH in light of the Grenfell disaster. It was here he was provided with a copy of the 2016 Fire Risk Assessment by THT staff who appeared “completely unperturbed by the content” of the document. Fire Risk Assessments should be carried out by suitably qualified fire risk assessors who identify fire hazards, people at risk and come up with an action plan to improve fire safety if it is found to be lacking. Murphy was stunned by what he found in the assessment, saying:

“In 20 years of being a health and safety practitioner, I have never seen such a mismanagement of safety that is critical to peoples’ lives; I was appalled”.

Around 250 people live in SH, and compelled to action by his fears for the safety of his friends, neighbours and residents in SH, many of whom are old or have disabilities that would impede their escape, Murphy carried out what he describes as a “forensic micro-analysis” of the FRA which completely pulled the assessment apart to reveal serious failings. He documented his findings in the report, ‘Examining High Rise Fire Safety Management At Stretford House, A Trafford Housing Trust Property’.

A damning report on fire safety

The 2016 FRA document for Stretford House listed 44 recommendations for improvements to fire safety in its action plan, eight of which were the most serious kind requiring urgent attention. Three of these actions had been noted in a previous 2013 FRA, and appeared not to have been remedied in four years: the emergency lighting fault in the stair enclosure on the 15th floor; no record of weekly fire tests; no fire procedure notices.

The report compiled by Murphy also stated that the fire risk assessor had made numerous mistakes and that the 2016 FRA appeared to show that:

  • the Automatic Fire Alarm (AFA) might not be working, had not been tested and isn’t maintained
  • the AFA appears not to be connected to a monitoring station that would call the Fire Service in the event of a fire
  • the self closing fire doors that protect the single escape stairway and that are used for firefighting throughout the building appear to have not been checked at all or maintained
  • the firefighting dry riser appears to not have been checked, may not work and is not maintained
  • the building appears to have a number of breaches in fire compartmentation boundaries between floors that could lead to rapid vertical fire spread between floors
  • the emergency lighting system appears to not be checked, may not work and is not maintained
  • there appears to be no evacuation procedures for the building and its many vulnerable residents

Similar to the experience of Grenfell residents with their Tenant Management Organisation, Murphy found his warnings to THT about Fire Safety at Stretford House, both pre- and immediately post-Grenfell were not taken seriously. He states:

“I provided THT with detailed advice, numerous warnings and copies of associated guidance in emails in 2016 but they chose to ignore many of those warnings.”

Phillip Murphy speaking at Grt. Man. Unite Community Branch meeting

He submitted his report on 20 June to Matthew Gardener (THT Chief Executive), Kate Green (MP), David Acton (Chair of GMCA Fire Authority) and Andy Burnham (GM mayor). Initially the response to his report was mixed. By 11 am the next day there were housing officers in the foyers of all Trafford high rise blocks checking on concerns and a High Rise Panel of tenants had been set up with direct access to the THT board. However, the paperwork to confirm or deny the faults he identified in the FRA for SH had not yet been produced, which Murphy says:

“ …is a statutory contravention of the Regulatory Reform Order 2005 of Fire Safety which came into force in 2006.”

He went on to describe the order as “effectively privatising the fire inspection industry, which was previously the responsibility of public fire services.”

He has repeated his calls to THT for the fire safety paperwork to be produced, which could well alleviate some of the concerns raised when produced. Deciding not to make his report public, he gave the housing association some time to produce the documents.

Cladding removed while other high rise fire safety issues raised

Fire resistance testing of 137 high rise cladding samples from across the UK has led to a 100% failure rate, leading to calls from government for a major national investigation. But other fire safety failures are being uncovered as cladding is being investigated. Cladding is to be removed from 17 Manchester high rises, with Manchester Council’s deputy leader, Bernard Priest pointing to the importance of other elements of fire safety in high rises, saying “I think we are going to end up installing sprinklers”. In Salford a total of 24 blocks are to have their cladding removed, while Salford council refuses to release technical information on the cladding used. In Camden, where high rise blocks were evacuated, the housing minister Alok Sharma said:

“In Camden it was not just the cladding; there were other multiple failures when it came to the fire safety regime.”

Fire risk assessors and high life risk

Murphy claims in his report that SH has been miscategorised as a low life-risk building rather than a high life-risk building, the risk referring to the potential loss of life in event of a fire. Local Government regulation states that buildings should be considered a higher than normal risk “where significant numbers of occupiers have limited mobility or are unable to move without assistance, or premises catering for people subject to alcohol or substance misuse.” Stretford House has a significant number of people falling into these categories that THT are aware of, and Murphy states that there is a clear risk of a high number of fatalities if a fire breaks out in any high rise block.

While addressing a Greater Manchester Unite Community Branch meeting in Salford on the 27 June, where many members present lived in tower blocks in Manchester, Murphy warned that these alleged mistakes could be UK wide, saying:

“The housing managers had not followed the Chief Fire Officer Associations (CFOA) guidelines in choosing a fire risk assessor, because they had whole heartedly failed to recognise the 250 people in those flats as a high life-risk. That is common across the country, that managers of high rise residential accommodations, Tenant management organisations and housing trusts have previously, most of them, failed to recognise the risk.

“That means they have failed to appoint the correct level of expertise to do their fire risk assessments, they have failed to recognise the risk posed by multiple failures within a FRA, and totally failed to recognise the potential for a large loss of life in the event of a catastrophe of this nature.”

The fire assessor who carried out the Stretford House FRA in 2016 had attained what Murphy describes as equivalent to an ‘A Level’ of fire safety qualification, which enabled him to achieve a Tech IOSH status, suitable for assessing an average low risk workplace. For a building that is designated as high life-risk in case of fire, the very minimum level of qualification should be a degree level in Fire Engineering or Fire Safety Management.

The CFOA guidance on choosing a competent fire risk assessor, which is THT’s responsibility, provides a list of register holders to which qualified fire risk assesors should be signed up. No record of the individual fire assessor or the company he worked for, Property Tectonics, could be found by Murphy on any of these registers.

The relative inexperience of the fire risk assessor may go some way to explaining the catalogue of errors contained in the Stretford House 2016 FRA. Murphy claims that 22 separate errors were made by the fire risk assessor, which include:

  • statements that there were 475 people living in the building, when there are approximately 250
  • statements that there are no records of disabled residents, whereas THT have a list of all disabled people in the block
  • statements that people leaving their flats can only go in one direction to the stairwell, whereas all flats have two routes to stairwell

Appalled at the list of errors made by the assessor, Murphy was dumbfounded by the assessor’s conclusion that the ‘Assessment of likely Consequence of Fire’ was ‘moderate’ in Stretford House given the 44 recommendation he had made for fire safety improvements, a number that could have been greater if the assessors mistakes were taken into account.

Being aware of all the failings present in the 2016 FRA, Murphy was not confident of any of its findings, and suspected that many of the maintenance issues highlighted in the assessment were due to not having the correct evidence to hand. But that evidence is required to be on hand by the Regulatory Reform (Fire Safety) Order 2005, and that should have set alarm bells ringing for the assessor, THT and Property Tectonics. Murphy says:

“Nobody should sleep in a block of flats that appears to have such a catastrophic failure in fire safety management, without exception. The Fire Risk Assessor does not raise any real concerns about the series of failures and indicates that the risk is acceptable. A shocking conclusion.

“It is my firm opinion as an ex Fire Safety Officer and as a Health and Safety professional that the findings present evidence of overwhelmingly poor and incompetent HRFSM [High Rise Fire Safety Management]. To have ignored detailed warnings of such is unacceptable and dangerous malpractice.”

Fire safety paperwork demanded from THT

On Friday 23 June Murphy again requested the relevant fire safety documentation from THT, and again received nothing. On seeing the reports of tower blocks being evacuated in Camden due to fire safety failures, he felt that he could no longer sit on his report. He published it on his website and shared it on social media in the hope that media/public attention on the findings of the report and the negative press associated with it would force THT to do the right thing and release the relevant fire safety documents and address the concerns laid out in the report.

The strategy worked: within 48 hours the report had been downloaded a hundred times and he had numerous media interviews. Another meeting was arranged at Stretford Fire Station where chief executive of THT Matthew Gardener, the senior fire officer for the area, and local councillors were all present. Gardener opened the meeting, with what Murphy says was:

“a lovely speech describing how well they had responded to the concerns of tenants, having people [housing officers] in the blocks, and applauding themselves in short for their human reaction to the tragedy”

Murphy then pointed out their shortcomings on the technical failings towards fire safety still present, including the lack of evidence to suggest that the fire safety systems in the building worked at all. He noted that there was evidence to suggest that there were still multiple breaches in the fire compartmentation present that had been there since 2013 and that people in Stretford House were still desperately afraid.

The meeting resulted in a senior fire safety officer being sent to carry out a deep audit of fire safety systems and any breaches in the building. As a consequence of that assessment, two walking fire wardens have been allocated to Stretford House until further improvements to fire safety are made.

Gardener, who Murphy describes as being “backed into a corner” by the evidence, also promised that an L1 fire alarm system (suitable for high life-risk buildings such as hospitals) would be installed and that sprinklers would be fitted to the escape staircase. THT also produced the fire safety documentation requested following the meeting.

Murphy is hugely relieved by the allocation of walking wardens to the building, saying. “A fire alarm won’t hear a scream, it won’t smell smoke from three floors away. Nothing is safer than a walking warden around that building, offering a human presence and offering the observations only a human can give”.

He is now ensuring that the tenants of Stretford House understand in detail the concerns over fire safety that were uncovered by his investigations and the planned activities to improve the situation. Murphy wants as many people as possible to learn from what has happened at Stretford House and wants anyone living in similar high rise blocks to contact him (details below) so he can offer them help and advice to overcome any concerns they may have about fire safety.

The Metor contacted Trafford Housing Trust for comment regarding fire safety at Stretford Tower, but THT has failed to reply.

 

Conrad Bower

Phil Murphy’s Manchester Sustainable Communities website: www.manchestersustainablecommunities.com

Phil Murphy’s Twitter: @MancCommunities

Donations to Stretford House Fire Safety Fund, aiming to help other high rise dwellers across the UK, can be made by clicking here

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