By Danielle Aumord.

A fire safety expert told the Grenfell Inquiry that the UK is a global outlier when it comes to the ‘stay put’ policy (13 – 23 June 2022)

Professor Torero, a professor of civil engineering at University College London with significant international experience and recognition in the fire safety field, has criticised the primary test method for facades in the UK regulatory system. He told the Grenfell Inquiry that it doesn’t provide “any meaningful measure” for real-world fire performance.

The government has since admitted that it failed to put in place or provide sufficient oversight of a regulatory system that could have prevented the Grenfell Tower fire.

He explained that the US doesn’t have a presumption of stay put within fires and “requires some form of evacuation at all levels”, whilst Australia changed building safety laws in response to the Grenfell fire and had already been in discussions on the issue after a serious cladding fire in a Melbourne apartment block in 2014.

Dubai also abandoned the stay-put policy with a new code of practice in 2018, following Grenfell. They’re now mandating an evacuation strategy – usually this is ‘phased’, meaning the building is evacuated in stages.

“This is a matter that deserves rigorous analysis because I still haven’t found any reason why a stay-put strategy is beneficial or necessary. There’s no technical reason for that,” Professor Torero said.

Lawyers for bereaved family members and survivors also told the inquiry that the government’s rejection of the inquiry’s recommendation that plans should be made for the evacuation of disabled people in high rises “strikes at the heart” of the inquiry’s purpose.

Kate Grange QC, counsel to the inquiry, asked Professor Torero: “Thinking about the position currently globally: how common would you say that phased evacuation approach is?”

“If you take high-rise buildings in general, I would say most countries will have a provision for a phased evacuation for high-rise buildings,” Professor Torero replied. “In countries like the UK, that provision will exist for office buildings, but not for residential. But I think to a great majority, you will have a provision for a staged evacuation also in residential buildings around the world.”

Ms Grange further asked: “So to what extent is this jurisdiction an outlier, at the moment, in retaining a stay put strategy?”

“I think the UK is an outlier in the sense of its rigidity. So, there’s no alternative – in that sense, it’s truly an outlier. Even in countries where they have retained a significant number of situations in which stay put is acceptable, they will have a provision that in case it’s not, you can move it to a plan B,” responded Professor Torero. “I will say that where the UK is truly an outlier in the absence of alternative provisions.”

The inquiry also heard that though each US state has its own regulations, a national body called the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) “exercises huge influence” in the way that fire safety is implemented across the country.

The US overall follows higher standards of fire safety, including through use of sprinklers, phased evacuations and putting two staircases in buildings.

The US also has a similar large-scale fire test – NFPA 285 – to the one in the UK: BS 8414.

“[The NFPA 285] test is similar to BS 8414 and is mandated for use predominantly on high-rise buildings where a combustible component may make up part of the building’s exterior wall assembly,” said a spokesperson for the NFPA, in a submission to the Grenfell inquiry. “Having a rigorous test isn’t enough to control the fire risk. It’s important to ensure that what’s specified as well as installed is the same as what’s tested.”

The NFPA 285 test has been used in what Professor Torero describes as an otherwise “rigid” system in the US, whereas in the UK the BS 8414 test is open to interpretation. “If you have a complicated situation that has multiple variables and you’re incorporating that into a system that allows multiple solutions, the possibility of making a mistake is enormous.”

He concluded that the UK’s testing system is “extremely far away” from where it should be.

The inquiry was also shown a document called Fire Performance of External Cladding Systems, a new British standard, published in 2019, which looks at how to extrapolate results from BS 8414 tests.

The document attempts to bring some structure to the pre-Grenfell process of desktop assessments.

Professor Torero described it as “an absolute oversimplification of a complex problem that is full of mistakes from beginning to end” and explained that efforts to standardise these assessments were misguided. He further explained that what’s required is a “base bespoke assessment” of the building which the cladding system is being installed on.

The Professor also described the competency of British fire safety engineering professionals when making assessments of external wall fire safety performances as “extremely poor”.

He added: “But I would rather describe it as we have an enormous confusion of competency. I think we’ve got to the point where we really cannot assess in a credible way who’s competent and who is not.”

Ms Grange QC also went onto ask him about whether simply banning combustible cladding could be an option. “If you really wanted to implement the perfect ban, everything would have to be non-combustible…we know that that isn’t possible,” explained Professor Torero.

He concluded told that a “true solution” to the problematic British fire safety testing systems will require a “complete reassessment” of the manner in which fire safety is perceived by the construction industry, which the Professor says will take “significant time”.