What does Grenfell teach us about the fire industry?

In November 2022, during the closing statements for Module 7 of the Grenfell Tower Inquiry, Richard Millett, KC, Lead Counsel to the inquiry, said:

There was nothing unknown or not reasonably knowable which caused or contributed to the fire and its consequences. On the contrary, each and every one of the risks which eventuated at Grenfell Tower on that night were well known by many and ought to have been known by all who had any part to play.

That is a statement with huge implications.

In essence, it is saying that 72 lives were lost in spite of the risks of such an event being well known and understood.

We have to wait a little longer for “inquiry chair Sir Martin Moore-Bick and the panel [to] decide who was to blame”, as reported in Construction Management1. After this, CM says “the Met Police may begin criminal proceedings”.

If you have been following the inquiry, you will know how extensively it has been reported and how keenly justice is awaited. This is in spite of a complex ‘web of blame’ that has built up during the inquiry which will challenge any criminal investigation that may follow. However, as important as that stage will be for the families of the victims, what is the most critical reason for accurately understanding the root causes of this tragedy? Is it not to stop another Grenfell happening in the future?

Root Causes

Richard Millet went on to say that “behind all of these discrete factors there lay complex, opaque, and piecemeal legislation, and an over-reliance by law and policymakers on guidance, some of which – including the statutory guidance – was ambiguous, dangerously out of date, and much of which was created by non-governmental bodies and influenced by commercial interests” (emphasis added).

This is truly appalling as a root cause of a tragedy that claimed the lives of 72 people. In the UK. In the 21st century. In London. As close to the heart of our government and standards-setting bodies as you can get, and with the best-run, best-funded systems and processes that we have for monitoring compliance with regulations and standards. Or so you would reasonably think.

Whichever way we look at it, one should never be able to say that fire safety guidance is “dangerously out of date” and “influenced by commercial interests”. Never. But just how prevalent is such guidance?

Outdated guidance and commercial interest

Let’s take BS 9999:2017 as an example to show how easily guidance can become outdated and yet continue to be followed, apparently without question. This widely used ‘Code of Practice’ entitled “Fire safety in the design, management and use of buildings” states that “fire curtain barriers [should] conform to BS 8524”.

However, it is over 3 years since BS EN 16034 became harmonised and, as a standard that covers vertical fire curtains, CE marking to it became mandatory under the Construction Products Regulations (CPR). Our white paper, ‘Fire curtain regulations in the UK’2, also highlights that BS 8524 is no longer available with ongoing third party certification by any UKAS (or equivalent) accredited Certification Body. Both Warringtonfire and IFC (Certification Bodies that are regulated by UKAS) have chosen to withdraw support for BS 8524.

While everyone can have an opinion about the relative merits of different standards and which should be recommended, isn’t it surely more reliable to turn to experts like the Certification Bodies for guidance in such matters, especially when they are overseen by UKAS, the National Accreditation Body for the United Kingdom, which is appointed by government? Furthermore, above that level, there are the regulations, specifically the Construction Products Regulations for products such as fire curtains.

However, BS 9999 continues to point consumers towards BS 8524 despite two materially significant changes since it (BS 9999) was published:

1 . BS EN 16034 was harmonised, and remains the only harmonised standard for fire curtains; and

2 . BS 8524 third party certification was withdrawn.

As the ASFP points out, “any passive fire protection system… should be fully backed up by third party certification for the manufactured product3. Other authorities share this view, such as the Fire Industry Association, who emphasise the importance of third party certification in their ‘Guide to the UK Fire Safety Industry 2022-2023’ article on this subject4. You can read more about this in the aforementioned white paper.

This brings us to the heart of the issue, because of the extent to which the fire industry is influenced by documents like BS 9999. This was illustrated to us recently when a fire engineer told us, “If BS 9999 says that is what to do then that is what I am going to do”.

As a result, in the scenario of BS 8524 products being sold without third party certification, fire safety would be in the hands of commercial interests. There would be no UKAS (or equivalent) accredited Certification Body carrying out the FPC, paperwork auditing, checks and assurance that makes third party certification so valuable and essential for a life safety product.

And this is before considering the legal compliance requirements of the CPR.

The better, safer, certified option

If we are to learn from the Grenfell tragedy and hold our industry to account, we must embrace a change of culture. One where safety comes before commercial interests, a culture where we accept the requirements and don’t attempt to dilute them or skirt around them.

For fire curtains, this translates into using BS EN 16034 certified products. BS EN 16034 has third party certification available from the largest and most reputable Certification Bodies in Europe, and is the only standard for fire curtains that is harmonised and can therefore be CE-marked with third party certification under the Construction Products Regulations.

You can read more about the regulations that apply to fire curtains in the UK, and specifically where these two standards fit into that, in the white papers ‘Fire curtain regulations in the UK’2, and ‘A technical comparison of BS EN 16034 and BS 8524’5.

As we can see, multiple authorities believe that third party certification is essential for guaranteeing a product’s conformity and the safety of consumers.

We believe that, as an industry, we must not use out-of-date guidance and standards to justify supplying consumers with products that are themselves out-of-date. If we do, aren’t we acting in a way that means another disaster like Grenfell is inevitable?

Opinions about what is ‘better’ need to be considered as secondary to the safer (CPR legally compliant) and (third party) certification requirements for construction products, especially those designed for life safety purposes.

Follow this link to see a video and transcript from the Grenfell Inquiry (extracts relevant to this article start at time 1:17:40 in the video).

This article was written in November 2022 and updated in April 2023 by the team at Adexon Fire & Smoke.