• Frank Furedi
  • Frank Furedi
  • Sociologist, commentator and author
Article

Grenfell Tower fire a year on

We will probably never get the full story about what happened at Grenfell Tower on June 14, 2017, the fateful night when catastrophe struck.

Nor do we know how many more lives could have been saved if the London Fire Brigade did not stick so long to its policy of telling residents to “stay put” and don’t flee from your flat.

What we do know is that the health and safety protocols followed by the emergency services at Grenfell and other recent incidents are underpinned by a risk-averse dogma that often restrains first responders from doing the right thing.

Whatever the merits of instructing residents in a tower block to stay put during the fire, it made no sense to continue with this policy for almost 90 minutes after it became evident the fire was spreading out of control.

The stay-put strategy might have looked good on paper but as fire safety expert Dr Barbara Lane indicated in a report presented to the Grenfell inquiry, it should have been abandoned as soon as it was evident that it was not working.

Since the Grenfell Tower fire the stay-put policy has come under severe censure.

Some have criticised the London Fire Brigade for relying far too much on formal procedure rather than using greater initiative in responding to the emergency.

However pointing the finger of blame at the emergency services overlooks the real problem which is that they have little choice but to live by an inflexible rulebook and avoid taking risks.

The grave consequences of the rigid box-ticking ethos guiding the emergency services became evident during the horrific bomb attack on Manchester concert-goers in March 2017.

The slavish acceptance of procedure meant that in the aftermath of the bombing the fire service initially prevented first responders from attending the scene.

Later the Greater Manchester Fire and Rescue Service was forced to make a humiliating apology for arriving two hours late to the Manchester Arena attack.

The mayor of Manchester Andy Burnham criticised the local fire chiefs for following protocol instead of showing “pragmatism”.

Dawn Docx, the interim chief fire officer, responded with an apology but still defended the decision to move fire officers away from the arena on the grounds that they followed “national guidance and procedure”.

Her solution to the problem was to allow the fire service to have greater “operational discretion” so that in the future people are “doing the right thing” instead of following policy.

Unfortunately the risk-averse policies which guide the behaviour of the emergency services are designed to discourage the exercise of operational discretion.

I have been researching the culture of fear in the UK for more than two decades and have become increasingly concerned about the growing influence of risk-averse policies over the operation of our emergency services and the military.

The 24-storey tower in Latimer Road, North Kensington, has been destroyed after a fire which started on the second floor rapidly spread to the top of the 120-flat block

The dangerous consequences of sticking to safety-obsessed procedures was exposed by former Strathclyde Fire and Rescue chief officer Brian Sweeney in 2011.

He argued that firefighters were more worried about health and safety legislation and the prospect of being prosecuted than of the dangers they confronted saving lives.

Sweeney’s fury was at the petty rules that prevent first responders from using their discretion and professional judgment.

He warned that “the introduction of legislation like the Corporate Homicide Act and its application to senior officers and middle-ranking and junior officers creates an environment where our ability to improvise is compromised - where there is a culture of fear about potential for prosecution and litigation”.

His spirited remarks followed a fatal-accident inquiry into the death of Alison Hume in 2008. Hume fell down a mine shaft and was not rescued for several hours after the firefighters arrived at the scene. Why? Because they were ordered not to use their harness equipment as they were not trained in such operations.

A former fire officer, John Bowman, told the inquiry that new “morally indefensible regulations meant that rescue equipment could not be used to help members of the public”.

The fire service is by no means the only organisation subjected to petty restrictions and the threat of prosecution.

Recently the Police Federation warned that its members were afraid of chasing muggers on mopeds because their careers could be damaged if the chase led to a suspect being injured.

Police drivers feared they would be blamed for injuring the criminal and face prosecution for reckless driving. The Police Federation’s spokesman Sergeant Tim Rogers stated that with such a threat hanging over him he would not pursue a moped gang.

No doubt he is not the only police officer who is reluctant to take them on.

The subjugation of the emergency services to a regime of box-ticking is inspired by a philosophy that insists we must avoid taking risks at all costs.

Traditionally the emergency services were expected to be courageous risk-takers who responded directly to the dangers that confronted them. Today they must first assess the risks and ensure their actions are fully in line with official guidelines before they finally respond to an emergency.

Since risk-taking has negative connotations in official guidelines, emergency workers are encouraged to hesitate and avoid responding to a danger in accordance with their professional judgment.

The College of Policing has recognised that the negative connotation ascribed to risk-taking has “led to the police service becoming risk-averse with some officers and staff afraid to make decisions in case things go wrong”.

That means the prevailing culture of policing discourages personnel from acting on their judgment and responding to threats on the basis of what they believe is the “right” course of action.

Back in 2008 the Flanagan Review of Policing warned that riskaversion was the product of powerful cultural forces that were unlikely to be reversed any time soon.

Tragically during the decade that has followed the Flanagan Report riskaversion has become even more deeply entrenched.

Consequently first responders are under far more pressure than ever before to tick the right boxes rather than to do what’s right.

As one firefighter told me: “No one is watching our backs - what matters is how the operation looks on paper rather than what happened on the night.”

The institutionalisation of riskaversion saps our courage and distracts emergency workers from responding effectively to the situation they face.

In the current climate the taking of risks is frequently portrayed as an act of irresponsibility. But the reality is the very reverse.

In many emergencies taking a risk constitutes the only form of responsible behaviour. It demonstrates a willingness to take responsibility for the welfare of those facing danger. Too often the avoidance of risk constitutes avoidance of responsibility.

Throughout history Britain was celebrated for its risk-taking attitude towards the unknown. Instead of shunning it we need a more robust attitude.

A tragic fire such as Grenfell Tower cannot always be avoided, which is why we need to back our first responders with greater power of freedom to exercise their discretion and to act without hesitation.

Frank Furedi’s latest book How Fear Works: Culture of Fear in the 21st Century is published by Bloomsbury.

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