The London Fire Brigade (LFB) had concerns over whether the work of the fire-risk assessor appointed by Grenfell Tower’s landlord was “suitable and sufficient”, an inquiry into the 2017 tragedy has heard.
One brigade officer questioned Carl Stokes’ fire-risk assessments (FRAs) after being left concerned by his allegedly “offhand” approach to self-closing doors in another building in 2015.
Former firefighter Mr Stokes won the contract to conduct FRAs for the Kensington and Chelsea Tenant Management Organisation (TMO) in September 2010.
Giving evidence on Wednesday, Rebecca Burton, former fire safety team leader for Hammersmith, Fulham, Kensington and Chelsea at the LFB, was asked what “concerns” colleagues had shared with her about the competence of Mr Stokes when she started her role in April 2014.
She said these were raised as “just general observations that he may not be competent for his role”.
Ms Burton explained this was mainly around the issue of “opposing opinions” around enforcement in relation to leaseholder flat front doors.
Ms Burton said that in her first meeting with Janice Wray, the TMO’s former health and safety manager, she was told about its five-year effort to risk-assess the whole housing stock it managed for the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea and that there were only eight non-compliant leaseholder fire doors.
But in her written statement to the inquiry, Ms Burton highlighted she developed “concerns” that there might be a “systemic problem” to the TMO’s approach to self-closing devices on doors.
Ms Burton said LFB inspection officers were starting to find deficiencies around doors lacking self-closers which caused her to question “what’s gone wrong here?”.
The issue was highlighted further after she read the fire risk assessment for Adair Tower in early November 2015, which had been hit by a fire the month before.
Ms Burton said: “Mr Stokes had, where it mentions self-closing devices, he’d put N/A, not applicable, and I can’t see a reason why a self-closing device on a fire door would ever be not applicable.”
She said this was an issue during the Adair Tower fire because the front door of the flat where the blaze originated was held open allowing smoke to spread throughout the building, although she did not know if there was not a self-closer on that door or if it had been wedged open by debris.
In her written statements to the inquiry, Ms Burton said she was later “very frank” with Ms Wray about Mr Stokes, telling her that “I did not think that he was providing a good service to the KCTMO, as illustrated by the quality of the FRA for Adair Tower”.
She also wrote: “My review of the FRA made me concerned about what appeared to be the risk assessor’s offhand approach to self-closing doors, which indicated, erroneously, that he believed that they were not required.”
She also claimed she was made aware that Mr Stokes would “in some instances rely on inspections carried out by the LFB as justification for his FRA” and “in one instance had used a lack of fires to justify missing fire doors without risk assessing the effect these missing doors would have if there was to be a fire”.
“It was my opinion at the time that their fire-risk assessor was not providing them with suitable and sufficient fire-risk assessments and this needed to be addressed,” she added.
The inquiry heard Ms Wray informed Ms Burton that the TMO’s approach to self-closers had been “dictated” by Mr Stokes following a “clarification” he received from a discussion with the LFB’s head of policy and head of enforcement.
Ms Wray said the TMO’s approach had “not been challenged” by the LFB and that is was “applying the appropriate standard” in “good faith”.
But Ms Burton said she was “very surprised” by this, adding she was “not convinced” this reflected the discussions held and that the LFB’s standard on doors had not changed.
Ms Burton confirmed she advised Ms Wray that self-closers were required on flat entrance doors “that opened on to a protected means of escape”.
She explained that a “self-closing device is crucial to a fire door”, adding: “If there isn’t one and a fire breaks out within a premises, that’s going to be its means for spreading throughout the rest of the building and affecting the other residents”.
Ms Burton said these were liable to be tampered with or removed by residents because “the doors constantly slam close”.
The TMO was informed its approach to checking fire doors when a resident reported a problem or a premises became vacant was not sufficient, with the expectation that annual checks could be made instead, the inquiry heard.
By the time she left her role in June 2017, Ms Burton said Ms Wray had last told her that a strategy document for an inspection and maintenance programme for flat entrance doors recommended a three-year programme, but the TMO board wanted to increase this to five years.
Ms Burton informed her this “wouldn’t be acceptable”, adding: “From our point of view it was work that should have already been done and we was disappointed that it hadn’t been done, because flat front doors are critical to the safety of persons within a premises, we would want that work carried out sooner rather than later.”
The inquiry heard how Ms Wray said in relation to FRAs, that she and Mr Stokes assumed that a lack of negative LFB comment after audit that premises’ arrangements were satisfactory.
On Wednesday, Ms Wray said she did not arrange for the FRAs programme to be audited despite industry guidance saying it should be.
Asked to explain why there was no audit, she added: “I couldn’t find the time to do it, which I know I should have done.”
Ms Burton told the inquiry Ms Wray did not inform her that as of March 2014, there were some 1,400 outstanding FRA actions in the TMO’s backlog.
Her LFB team leader predecessor Nicolas Comery also gave evidence to say he did not recall being informed of such a backlog.
Mr Comery said concerns over self-closers on flat front front doors were a “fundamental fire safety principle” and they were “a key component in keeping people safe”.
He said he would “refute strongly” any suggestion that there was an agreement that self closers were not necessary beyond the TMO’s approach of ensuring they were on tenants’ replacement front doors and reinstating them when premises were vacant or major works were undertaken.