Fire safety’s misinformation problem.

At a time when many residents in high-rise accommodation do not feel safe, and thousands of people may be suffering from psychological trauma as a result of the Grenfell Tower fire, is the trauma being amplified by misinformation in the media and ‘newsjacking’ on social platforms?

In the five years post national tragedy that was Grenfell Tower, I have lost count of the number of times I have felt anger at the misinformation being propagated by journalists and so-called fire or safety experts. Misinformation is usually disseminated without harmful intent, but some of these stories promoting misinformation, often of a sensational nature, created to be widely shared or distributed for the purpose of generating revenue, or promoting or discrediting a public figure, political movement, company, etc. It is disappointing that some of the UK’s foremost experts in fire safety, in Government and the profession, who have given much of their time voluntarily in the public interest to standards making and the profession have been the subject of spurious and defamatory attacks by the national press or by populist conspiracy theorists. The Independent’s article “Anger as expert who wrote pre-Grenfell fire safety guidance handed £210,000 contract to update it” created a reaction among disability campaign groups and stir on social media platforms. There was indeed anger, but the premise of that anger was based on a misapprehension.

We have seen numerous fire related articles from Inside Housing over the years which have been erroneous and factually incorrect, but disappointingly an article in the Guardian with a headline “Tower twice Grenfell’s height planned nearby with single staircase” led to the withdrawing of projects, based on fear from planners that they will be criticised, based on ill-informed public opinion. This article disseminated vague information, not relevant or reflecting the real construction industry issues, or even the correct fire safety issues. This is probably based on a lack of fire knowledge from the journalist and/or the lack of a competent source with fire design knowledge. The conclusions drawn by the journalist could be dangerous and harm the industry, creating unnecessary panic or concern for occupants living in single stair buildings. Whilst criticism is useful, for such criticism to be valid and help the construction industry to improve, it should be based on a rational analysis of the facts backed up by suitable scientific evidence, statistics and appropriate competency / experience in the field, and should therefore come from competent people with a specialism in fire, if that is the subject matter expertise required.

A paper written almost four decades ago, by Margaret Law and Paula Beever of ARUP Fire in 1984 (See Endnote) highlighted that public opinion can drive decision making and hamper rational analysis following a fire disaster. It seems we are going on the same journey and whilst it was to be anticipated, it’s frustrating, disappointing and not in the public interest.

Misinformation in the fire safety arena is often amplified post Grenfell by those that purport to be experts, but don’t have a grasp on what they claim to be teaching. It is easy to see how journalists might be fooled into thinking their source is a genuine expert because some of those willing to speak, believe themselves to be experts and neither the journalist nor the source fully appreciate that:

  • They might not understand the system and subsequent systemic failings, or have not developed a fire strategy or worked in fire safety design, engineering or assurance and are speaking on that subject.
  • They might not understand the system and subsequent systemic failings or have not undertaken a fire risk assessment or worked in fire assurance, or fire risk management and are speaking on that subject.
  • They might be someone on the fringe of the profession with beliefs that are founded on misconceptions and out of kilter with most genuine experts in the field.

No-one should be silenced of course, and all voices should be heard. We should break down silo’s but we should also seek a rational balanced analysis of the facts, because misinformation is not in anyone’s interest. There is an expertise vacuum on social media platforms because many of those with appropriate expertise, have been sourced for expert work and must not prejudice the work they are doing elsewhere. On the subject of culture change and public trust, journalists could and should do more to check that they are speaking to someone with a strong pedigree in the subject matter, that other experts consider to be an expert. Sometimes they are speaking to someone on the fringe of the profession with questionable knowledge or experience in the subject matter. This can amplify misinformation, and when presented as fact, creates ministerial discomfort and unnecessarily alarms the public. Simple checks and balances could reduce this, vetting as if someone is applying for a job. Obvious questions like do they have a relevant qualification in fire? have they any experience doing fire work? If they have had more roles than hot dinners, have worked with other fire experts or in any of the well known professional companies in the space. These experts are not always opportunistic and morally unscrupulous individuals; they can be people that simply fail to understand the boundaries of their own competency and are confident speaking publicly on an area associated with their expertise but not an area they are expert in. The practice of ‘news-jacking’ sensational news headlines and posting on social media for their own self-promotion without a rational analysis of the story, is lazy and adds very little to the debate.

There is an expertise vacuum on social media platforms

The National Union of Journalists, code of conduct has set out the main principles of UK and Irish journalism since 1936 and the first four points resonate.

  • At all times upholds and defends the principle of media freedom, the right of freedom of expression and the right of the public to be informed.
  • Strive to ensure that information disseminated is honestly conveyed, accurate and fair.
  • Do her/his utmost to correct harmful inaccuracies.
  • Differentiate between fact and opinion.

Real experts focus on their field, not themselves and have no trouble saying: “I don’t know”. They demonstrate intellectual honesty, show intellectual curiosity and know when and how to share. Real experts cannot help but teach, because they want to explain their knowledge to the layman in plain English. They understand the two-part concept of risk, appreciate that it can never be reduced to zero and consider proportionality when developing mitigation measures. Real experts understand the public are rightly angry over the tragedy and emotions are running high. They understand that some of the issues being discussed are complex and ultimately when thinking about solutions it is the public that will pay for them in house prices, taxes and the cost of living. Those in Government must remember there is no pound easier spent, than the pound that is not their own, and therefore we must always do a cost benefit analysis to ensure we achieve the biggest safety bang for our buck. How safe is safe enough? How much safety does the public want and how much are they prepared to pay for it? Real experts act in the public interest and stick to the facts, regardless of public opinion they want to find the root cause of each systemic failing. They do not indulge in sensationalism, baseless conspiracy theory, news-jacking and scaremongering. They also acknowledge that the public trust must be re-built. The public trust is vital and we must earn it.

Real experts have empathy and are capable of seeing with the eyes of another, listening with the ears of another, and feeling with the heart of another and so they do choose their words wisely because they know their words have meaning. There is a lack of empathy in false facts, scaremongering and sensationalism created by misinformation, and it is this culture that needs to change. Of course, it is important that the public are informed, all voices are heard and that all stakeholders listen to understand, but as a fire professional its disappointing to read sensational headlines stirring up those that hold a deep suspicion for the prevailing establishment and seek to frame a national tragedy as a battle between the people and a nefarious or corrupt elite. This is nonsense, untrue and unhelpful. The counter accusation is of course that within the profession there is a tendency towards protectionism, preservation of hierarchy and the status quo. I’d take rational analysis from an expert, passionate about his or her profession, over conspiracy theory and false facts, any day.

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Systemic failures.

When multi-fatality fires occur, history has shown there has usually been multiple failings that come together with tragic consequences. Individuals are too often assumed to be at fault, when the “system” itself may be implicated in the problem. When systems fail, the public are usually fed a rotten argument: “It’s only one bad apple”. An individual acting alone presents an easy target for media scapegoating. Dame Judith Hackitt correctly identified the systemic failings from the outset and the inquiry is now thoroughly examining every aspect of the system to correctly identify each and every failing with numerous public bodies funded by the taxpayer, not-for-profit organisations and large private companies. I do not envy those that are being called to give evidence and there is no doubt in my mind that this tragedy has triggered a watershed moment and will ultimately lead to lasting change. We should remember that a criminal inquiry will likely follow the current public inquiry.

On the subject of expert opinion. Here is a selection of ten truths that are quite often being ignored in the current debate.

TEN SIMPLE TRUTH’s

1) It is clear that Grenfell Tower would not have satisfied the functional requirements of the Building Regulations applicable at the time of the refurbishment, which points towards a systemic issue within the construction process and around competency and control.

2) It is clear that both the cladding and compartmentation at Grenfell Tower were neither suitable nor sufficient and resulted in fire and smoke spread beyond the compartment of fire origin and involved multiple compartments which tragically resulted in multiple fatalities.

3) Had the refurbishment of Grenfell Tower, incorporated either limited or non-combustible insultation/cladding and been afforded sound compartmentation and an operational smoke ventilation system, fire spread beyond the compartment of fire origin would have been significantly less likely, and survivability improved.

4) If Grenfell Tower was a building with cladding of limited combustibility and sound compartmentation then, as has been our experience since Post-War Building Studies, the stay put evacuation strategy could have worked and the fire may not spread further than a few apartments. It’s clear stay put should not have been an indefinite strategy and there was a lost opportunity to change tactics.

5) Sprinklers may have extinguished the fire before it took hold, but sprinklers would not have extinguished a fire on the outside of the building and if internal, the sprinkler system would not have been able to cope with the demand from multiple compartment fires over an extended duration.

6) All occupants should have the opportunity to evacuate should they wish to do so, and that includes people with limited mobility. The question causing the most contention at present is not in contention with this. The question is how? How can that be physically and practically managed and are any reasonable adjustments that are required proportionate to the risk?

7) Had the entire façade not been ablaze due to unsuitable insultation/cladding, and compartmentation resisted the spread of smoke or fire, mobility impaired persons would have been safe in their apartments, and could have evacuated if able or assisted.

8) Residents in high rise accommodation do not feel safe but the risk to any individual of being involved in such an event is extremely small and that standard of safety is now being greatly improved nationally.

9) The public inquiry is investigating the systemic failings that have occurred, scrutinising past decisions and events. There are many lessons to be learnt.

10) Our legislation and national guidance is being improved based on lessons learnt and the number of fire fatalities in the UK is likely to continue it’s declining trend.

There is a chance that an ‘outlying’ event may occur in future should multiple failings come together simultaneously and cause tragic consequences. However the likelihood of this happening is being reduced through tightening of legislation, improvements to national guidance and a focus on competency of all stakeholders in the construction process. Risk management is not a zero sum concept; it’s a two part concept comprising of likelihood and consequence and cannot be reduced to zero. An intelligent, proportionate approach to fire safety design, engineering, assurance and risk management is very much in the public interest and for this we will need the advice of real experts and a little less misinformation and conspiracy theory, alarming the general public, drumming up fear as thousands come to terms with the psychological trauma, of an event that must never be repeated.

The survivors and bereaved families from the Grenfell Tower fire are right to demand justice and change in memory of 72 who died. We sincerely hope the Grenfell Enquiry delivers this and will continue to work tirelessly towards a safer, more secure, resilient future for all.

Ben Bradford BSc Hon’s MSc MBA CEng PPCABE FIFireE FRICS

Chief Executive for and on behalf of BB7 Group Limited.

Endnote – Written by Margaret Law and Paula Beever, ARUP Fire in 1984.

International Association on For Fire Safety Science (IAFSS) Paper 21. Magic Numbers and Golden Rules.

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NOTE: This opinion piece, has been written and reviewed by independent fire professionals passionate about the profession and the public good. We do not manufacture, install, maintain or specify products. We sell three things of value: Experience, Expertise, Efficiency. Our advice is based on a rational analysis of scientific and engineering principles combined with a knowledge of legislation, national guidance and standards.

As professionals our duty is first and foremost to the public good and we are quite clear that a ‘no’ uttered with conviction is better than a ‘yes’ uttered merely to please.