London Fire Brigade ‘slow to implement changes’ following Grenfell

The country’s largest fire service has been “slow to implement changes” following the 2017 Grenfell Tower disaster, the industry watchdog has said.

A review into London Fire Brigade (LFB) found that important projects – including reviews of staffing arrangements and emergency response using specialist equipment and personnel – have either stalled or are behind schedule, according to the root-and-branch examination by Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary and Fire and Rescue Services (HMICFRS).

Its report also said the LFB attends a disproportionately high number of false alarms, while some fire engine drivers have not received refresher training for 20 years.

The HMICFRS said: “The tragic fire at Grenfell Tower in 2017 was one of the biggest challenges London Fire Brigade has ever had to face.

“The incident has had a profound effect on how the brigade now performs.

“Although our findings are broadly consistent with those of the Grenfell Tower Inquiry, it must be emphasised that this was an inspection of the brigade in 2019.

“We found that, while the brigade has learned lessons from Grenfell, it has been slow to implement the changes needed.

“This is unfortunately typical of the brigade’s approach to organisational change.”

Fire Brigades Union general secretary Matt Wrack said the report will be “deeply concerning for the Grenfell community and all of London”.

He said: “Grenfell must be a turning point for UK fire safety – anything less is completely unacceptable.”

LFB was one of three services across England to require improvement in three key areas, according to the HMICFRS.

The latest investigation, which analyses performance across one third of the country’s 45 fire services at a time, also found that Essex and Gloucestershire were under-performing in terms of the effectiveness and efficiency of their service, as well as how they treat their people.

Six of the 15 fire services were deemed “good” in all three areas: Cleveland, Derbyshire, Staffordshire, Suffolk, South Yorkshire and West Yorkshire.

The assessment identified areas of strength within LFB, such as being well-resourced with staff and exceeding its own standards on response times.

But the report was particularly scathing of its current effectiveness for protecting the public through fire regulation, how it uses its resources, and said it is “worryingly inadequate” at “getting the right people with the right skills”.

The watchdog also said senior LFB commanders rarely exercised “operational discretion” to deviate from brigade policy.

Tower block fire in London
Dany Cotton is retiring as London Fire Commissioner at the end of the month (Yui Mok/PA)

The report did not make explicit reference to the brigade’s much-condemned “stay put” policy, when Grenfell residents were told to remain in their flats by firefighters and 999 operators for nearly two hours after the blaze broke out.

Inquiry chairman Sir Martin Moore-Bick subsequently identified that more lives could have been saved had the policy been abandoned sooner.

Matt Parr, HM Inspector of Fire and Rescue Services, said: “This is a disappointing report: there are too many areas where the London Fire Brigade needs to make improvements.”

He added: “Many of its projects are wasteful, projects get started and stalled.

“The organisation as a whole is slow to learn.

“We are absolutely not criticising every firefighter in London – there are lots of people who are very dedicated.

“But what it doesn’t leave you with is the impression that the organisation is well-run and where value for money is top of their agenda.”

Dany Cotton, who will retire as London Fire Commissioner at the end of the month, had seen the report before she announced the decision to bring her resignation forward from April 2020, Mr Parr said.

Her replacement, Andy Roe, said: “I recognise that what’s been highlighted in the report isn’t good enough and, as the new Commissioner I am committed to making the necessary improvements when I take on the position in January.”

The report found that some fire engine drivers had not received refresher training for up to 20 years, despite national guidance recommending this takes place every five years.

Elsewhere, the inspectorate found most of the senior commanders said they had not had incident training “for several years”, while there is no systematic training programme for firefighters tasked with responding to terror attacks in the capital – with many frontline officers saying they do not have suitable personal protective equipment and “lack the confidence” to respond.

The report found that LFB had not done enough to “reduce the burden of false alarms”, in that it was only managing to weed out 3.7% of automatic fire alarm requests for assistance – much lower than the average of 30% across England.

Mr Parr described LFB response times – some six minutes and 39 seconds on average as of the year 2017-18 – as “excellent”, but said around 48% of its call-outs were false alarms.

He said: “The people driving those (fire engines) around – arguably unnecessarily – are years out of date for driving 15-tonne fire trucks. That speaks to me of a service which is woefully out of date.”

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