‘Let’s not wait until there is another fire’: Islington Council to improve staff training following tower block blaze

Godfrey House

Entrance to Godfrey House. Photograph: Julia Gregory

Politicians have stressed the importance of on-going staff training so they know what to do if a fire breaks out in council homes in Islington.

Islington council is spending £115m on boosting fire safety at its homes over five years.

It includes £50m on tall buildings, work on fire alarms on emergency lighting on street properties, £17m on replacing front doors and £4m to fit wet riser mains to ensure the water pressure needed to fight fires in tall buildings.

The council is dealing with 33 high risk issues, uncovered by its in-house authored fire risk assessments (FRAs). They include the discovery of flammable liquid petroleum gas cylinders. Leaks can be hard to spot as the gas is  colourless and has no smell.

The council’s head of housing safety and compliance, Stuart Fuller, said the FRA inspectors also found “significant accumulation of combustible materials” which could catch light.

The council’s housing scrutiny committee (Monday 6 December) examined the progress in improving fire safety since the fatal fire at Grenfell Tower in west London four and a half years ago.

It swiftly removed unsafe cladding from Braithwaite House in Bunhill in the weeks after the Grenfell fire disaster.

Upgrade work to replace communal doors and  improve fire stopping to 46 tower blocks have been completed, with 11 more to start and 13 underway.

The fire safety update followed a fire enforcement notice issued after fire inspectors looked round Godfrey House in Bunhill after a fire at the tower block in the spring.

They identified a series of problems,  including combustible materials left in escape routes, and concerns about training. They found residents’ belongings blocking escape routes, such as a pushchair  and fridge freezer left in communal areas.

However it emerged that the councillor in charge of housing, Cllr Diarmaid Ward and ward councillors were unaware of the notice until the Local Democracy Reporting Service highlighted the case.

The council has reviewed its policies and is giving councillors more regular updates.

The London Fire Brigade (LFB) last issued the council with enforcement notices in 2016 when it had concerns about Galway House and Grayson House on the Pleydell Estate in Bunhill.

Fire inspectors were concerned about staff training when they inspected Godfrey House, a 21-storey tower block.

Councillors at housing scrutiny committee sought assurance that staff are getting enough training on what to do if there is a fire.

Cllr Phil Graham, whose Bunhill ward includes Godfrey House, said: “It’s something that’s very, very important.

“We all know how important this is.”

He said: ” I am concerned that this is not a one-off,” after the problems were spotted at Godfrey House.

“Let’s not wait until there is another fire,” he said.

Head of housing Maxine Holdsworth said: “We are reinforcing that training – as a result of that notice we have further training.”

This includes fire safety awareness and fire marshal  courses.

They are also updates on how to access information about vulnerable residents during one-to-one staff meetings.

Committee chairman Michael O’Sullivan wanted to ensure staff get “refresher training, so it sticks in their mind.”

Councillors also wanted to know about the progress in fitting Premises Information Boxes (PIBs) . These contain detailed drawings of a building’s layout and information about vulnerable residents and evacuation plans to help firefighters if they had to tackle a blaze.

By law, high rises over 18m or seven storeys will need these potentially life-saving boxes when the Fire Safety Act comes into force next year.

The boxes were recommended by the coroner after the 2009 fire at Lakanal House in Southwark, which claimed the lives of six people.  The chair of the Grenfell Tower Inquiry also recommended them in 2019, following the deaths of 72 people at Grenfell.

So far Islington has got six Premises Information Boxes on its homes, following a pilot  between the council and London Fire Brigade.

Ms Holdsworth said: “It’s a  really important issue to get right.”

She said housing staff have to approach residents to check if “they are comfortable” about including information that they might need extra help if there was a fire.

She added the council has a database with details of vulnerable residents.

“We can access that 24/7,” she said.