Grenfell Tower inquiry: expert explains four main findings – and how emergency services must improve

Focus on the fire service. John Gomez/Shutterstock.

Paresh Wankhade, Edge Hill University

The long-awaited phase one report of the public inquiry led by Sir Martin Moore-Bick into the fire at the Grenfell Tower has been published. This report examines the events of an extremely complicated situation on the night of June 14, 2017, which resulted into the tragic loss of 72 lives. It investigates the cause of the fire, how it developed and the steps taken by the London Fire Brigade (LFB) and other emergency services.

Understandably, the response to the findings – which underscore failures by emergency services – has been immediate and intense, with survivors calling for the resignation of London Fire Brigade chief Dany Cotton. Yet the report runs over 830 pages, and it will take time to examine and understand the findings in detail. For now, I’ve drawn on my expertise in the management of emergency services to summarise the report’s key findings and recommendations.

1. Require owners and managers to share information about building design and materials.

Similar cladding was found on Chalcots Estate in Camden, London. mattbuck/Wikimedia Commons.

While the report was critical of the fact that LFB was unaware of the combustible nature of the materials used in the external cladding that surrounded Grenfell Tower, it concluded that the cladding was largely responsible for the fire spreading so quickly.

The report recommends that owners and managers of every high rise residential building (over 18 metres in height) should provide their local fire and rescue service with information about the design of its external walls and details of the materials of which they are constructed. This is a significant recommendation, which should help local fire services to recognise the nature of each fire they face, and make contingency plans to deal with specific types of fires.

2. Develop national guidelines for the evacuation of high rise towers.

Moore-Bick praised the firefighters who attended the tower for their extraordinary courage and selfless devotion to duty, but concluded that the absence of an operational evacuation plan was a “major omission” in the LFB’s preparation for a fire at a building such as Grenfell Tower.

The report argued in length whether the “stay put” policy – whereby tower block residents were advised to stay inside their flats, to compartmentalise the fire – could have been reviewed by the brigade earlier in the night, so that more lives could be saved. This is undoubtedly one of the most emotive and controversial issues brought up by the report.

The report also called for a legal requirement on owners and managers of every high rise residential building to draw up evacuation plans and need for contingency planning, including speakers and siren systems, to alert residents to understand the evacuation drill when needed. This may prove more difficult to implement, especially in tower blocks with single staircases. Fears for the safety of elderly people and young children in such scenarios may require the government to bring in new laws to specify planning requirements for the number of stairs and lifts.

3. Improve the response, training and communication within the fire service.

The report was critical about the response of LFB, both on the ground and in the control room where 999 calls were handled – especially regarding how information from callers was processed and shared with ground commanders. The inquiry found that senior control room staff lacked the training to manage a large-scale incident, while operational commanders lacked the training to recognise the need for an evacuation – or organise one.

The report concluded with recommendations to improve call handling and staff training, and develop better communication channels between staff on the ground and and in the control room to facilitate direct communication. It also recommended providing an integrated system of recording fire safety guidance information.

4. Strengthening cooperation between police, fire and ambulance services.

The report also identified lack of coordination between the three emergency services (the LFB, police and ambulance), particularly in the “area of communication between control rooms” and in relation to the “advice to be given to callers” trapped in the tower.

Their failure to share declarations of a major incident – which calls for extra levels of command, control and coordination between emergency services – went against protocols and hampered a joint response between police, fire and ambulance services.

What lies ahead

The report identified massive communication and command challenges for the LFB – and makes a compelling case for organisational learning across the emergency services. My own research has also identified governance challenges and a lack of coordination between emergency services – as did the Kerslake Report on the Manchester Arena tragedy of May 2017. So clearly, these are persistent problems.


Read more: How to reboot Britain’s fractured emergency services


Giving staff proper training, re-assessing the way decisions are made and undertaking rigorous risk assessments – as recommended by the inquiry – will go a long way to reassure the public about fire safety in high rise buildings, and the conduct of emergency services. But it will require additional investments in the services, which are already grappling with spending cuts.

Fire services alone have witnessed a 12% spending reduction in real terms between 2010 and 2015.
Doing “more with less” is also proving difficult for ambulance services. And central government funding to police and crime commissioners has been reduced by £2.3 billion (25%) in real-terms between 2010-11 and 2015-16.

Phase one of the report has been revealing, but the public will be in a better position to exercise judgement after phase two of the inquiry has run its course, and identified the aspects of the “design, construction and management of the building that were primarily responsible for the disaster”.

Paresh Wankhade, Professor of Leadership and Management, Edge Hill University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

How to reboot Britain’s fractured emergency services

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Professor Paresh Wankhade, Edge Hill University

The Grenfell Tower fire and recent terrorist attacks in Manchester and London have put the spotlight on spending cuts for emergency services.

In Manchester, an independent review into the emergency response was ordered in the aftermath of the bombing to look into the “the strain of spending cuts” on police. The city mayor is also investigating the fire service after crews were apparentley “held back” from helping the victims.

Whatever the outcome of these investigations – and others like them – I believe the problems go far beyond staff numbers and resources. The only way forward is to engage in a full system “reboot” to get better results.

The problems are legion. For starters, the emergency services are far too fragmented. There are huge differences across the emergency services when it comes to size, funding and organisational structures with no overarching body for coordination.

Disconnected ministerial oversight also creates uneven and localised outcomes in performance. And the government’s approach to the problem is vague and unclear. The Policing and Crime Act 2017 has brought important changes to the governance of the police and fire and rescue services – but ambulance services remain independent of these provisions. It places a duty on police, fire and ambulance services to work together which currently remains undefined.

Ambulance demand is growing at an annual rate of about 5.2%. Managing such levels of demand and maintaining the quality of patient care is unsustainable and it is no secret that ambulance services across the country are struggling to meet their performance targets. The police are witnessing a reduction in recorded crime but are increasingly dealing with cases relating to cybercrime, child and sexual exploitation and mental illness. Meanwhile fire services have seen a massive reduction in fire call-outs. But these organisations continue to be performance-managed and target-driven – and current models of service delivery do not reflect these changes.

The focus for the emergency services remains on performance metrics and stringent target regimes. Alongside this is the influence that staff associations and unions have on determining the scale and pace of reforms. Workforce issues such as stress remain largely neglected and recruitment and retention of black, Muslim and ethnic minorities (BME) continues to be a challenge.

Issues around Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and other illness – which are common among emergency workers – are not being fully addressed and ambulance staff sickness is highest within the NHS. Media reports also increasingly highlight cases of harassment and bullying within the emergency services.

There are no easy fixes for all these problems but emergency services do need a “road map” to help them navigate the shifting political landscape and the changes to training and performance regimes. Here are five ways to improve the emergency services and better equip them for the future.

Leadership reform

There needs to be a move from isolated chiefs calling all the shots to a more collaborative culture. This is because front-line staff and managers should have confidence in their own leadership and decision-making skills while dealing with other 999 services during major incidents and during interactions with the public.

Promote collaboration

A top-down bureaucratic approach to force the merger of police and fire services is unlikely to work and should be abandoned if it proves costly and does not bring results. Proposals for merger and reorganisation of the fire services need to be reconsidered, along with the feasibility of a national or regionally organised police force like in Scotland.
Further reforms should allow pooling organisational and management oversight.

Similarly, the role of the ambulance services within the emergency architecture should be spelt out more clearly, since they derive their funding from the National Health Service budget. They work more as the emergency arm of the health services rather than the health arm of the emergency services.

Adapt to changing demands

There is a clear need to understand how usage is changing – and to support staff to respond to new challenges. This will help to improve workforce motivation and reduce the cost of ill health by building a “resilient” organisational culture.

Academic partnerships

Developing partnerships with academia will be useful in building modern and professional organisations and to further improve the research base in the “Blue Light” services.

New management skills

Addressing staff morale and retention and setting performance criteria that make sense will be central to improving the services. The obsession with a target-chasing culture should give way to broader sets of measures to reflect the new challenges and changing organisational realities. We need a new set of collaborative leadership and management skills to inspire a shared purpose across a network of organisations to respond quickly to current and future problems.

The ConversationThis is an important moment for the emergency services. The steady rise in the 999 demand along with shrinking budgets are seen by many as two of the key challenges which are unlikely to go away in the near future. There is an urgent need to restart Britain’s limping emergency services and bring about real “transformational” change. But it requires determination, imagination and leadership – or the 999 services will be facing their own emergency situation.

Professor Paresh Wankhade, Professor of Leadership and Management with expertise in emergency service management, Edge Hill University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.