Preventing Tragedy Means Going Above and Beyond
After the tragic fire in London's Grenfell Tower, it’s crucial for multifamily operators to take a look at building safety—which might mean going beyond the letter of the law.
By Jindou Lee
On June 14 a fire blazed through Grenfell Tower in London, killing at least 80 people and injuring 70 more. Sparked by a faulty refrigerator, the fire quickly spread along the tower’s exterior cladding and burned for more than 24 hours as rescue workers struggled to save the residents. As soon as the fire was extinguished, policymakers began the process of figuring out what went wrong—and how they can prevent this kind of tragedy from happening again.
It may take several years to conclusively nail down the cause of the fire. While it’s clear the managers of Grenfell Tower did the legal minimum to keep the building safe, the UK’s current laws may not be stringent enough to safeguard against disaster. These laws do not ban flammable cladding in buildings over 22 meters tall or require fire-stairs and firefighting lifts for the use of firefighters and the wounded or disabled, both of which are common in Germany.
Early indications are that the Grenfell fire spread rapidly and claimed so many lives because of several dangerous situations that didn’t violate existing building codes. In other words, the Kensington and Chelsea Borough Council (KCBC) responsible for Grenfell Tower may not have broken any laws, but their failure to go beyond current legal requirements certainly contributed to the scope of this tragedy.
The building was constructed in the 1970s and therefore lacked the fire sprinkler system mandated by current London building codes. As it turns out, Grenfell Tower was (legally) grandfathered in to not need them, making it easier for the fire to spread through rooms and hallways. Grenfell Tower’s insulation cladding served to help the fire spread from floor to floor, prompting the company that produces the material to discontinue production. In addition, council estate residents are warned to stay in their apartments in case of a fire, but the Grenfell Tower fire spread much faster than expected, leading to a high casualty rate.
Residents also allege that supervisors not only ignored maintenance requests related to safety, but harassed tenants into keeping quiet about safety issues. Reports of combustible materials being stored in common walkways also suggest substandard safety management.
Beyond the Letter of the Law
So what does this mean for multifamily property owners and operators? Devastating fires can be prevented by building managers who do more than just conform to the letter of the law. Regular fire safety inspections should be frequent—fire extinguishers, for example, should be visually inspected once a month—and should account for the following at a bare minimum:
- Exits are unobstructed, clearly marked and in good repair to open easily
- Fire escapes are safe and easily accessible
- Fire extinguishers are securely mounted, properly accessible and have been serviced within the past year
- Wiring is efficient and neat, with no frayed wires or extension cords in use in place of permanent wiring
- Circuit breakers are clearly labeled
- All appliances are properly connected and have access to ventilation
- Sprinkler systems and smoke detectors are functioning properly and checked annually at minimum
Building supervisors should always respond quickly to residents’ safety concerns. Sprinklers, proper fire escapes and other fire safety equipment should be installed and inspected multiple times annually. Management must stay prepared for an immediate fire safety sweep and material replacement, no matter the cost, if a product on a property is deemed unsafe.
Diligent and Regular Inspections Improve Safety Conditions
Keeping a property safe is always more cost-effective than reacting to a disaster. Installing a sprinkler system and replacing flammable cladding would have been expensive, but it’s a fraction of the cost of demolishing the ruins of Grenfell Tower, reimbursing survivors, providing alternative housing for bereaved and displaced residents, and paying the legal fees associated with a multi-year investigation. And that doesn’t even begin to cover the inevitable legal settlements with the injured and the families of the deceased that KCBC will have to pay out in the coming years.
Complete fire prevention is impossible, but a higher standard of precaution is always within reach. Diligent and regular inspections, installing necessary safety upgrades and the prompt replacement of faulty materials are just a few of the steps necessary to keep disasters like the Grenfell Tower fire few and far between, preserving millions of pounds (or dollars), and most importantly, human life and happiness.
Jindou Lee is CEO of HappyCo, a San Francisco-based software company that builds mobile and cloud applications for enterprise workforces to run their operations in real time.