Fire safety has got worse

Burrell Tower in Albany Road, Leyton
Burrell Tower in Albany Road, Leyton, is said to pose a ‘substantial’ risk to residents (credit Sahira Raja)

Burrell Tower resident and former fire safety officer Mark Skinner on what must be done to make buildings safer

I am a long-time resident of Burrell Tower in Leyton and as a retired chief fire safety advisor I have taken a keen interest in fire safety standards, particularly since the Grenfell Tower disaster.

I submitted a long report to Waltham Forest Council addressing issues relating to the lack of effective passive fire safety measures in both Burrell and Rayner towers in Albany Road and I copied it to my MP Stella Creasy – she told the council she would keep a keen eye on their response.

Shortly after my letter I received a visit from local authority officers to look further into some of the issues raised. They promised myself and Stella they would write a full report and keep everyone, including residents, fully informed of their findings. This was supposed to include a plan of action to be adopted in order to address the issues discovered.

To date, no such report has been published, and us residents remain in the dark. Following the article published in the Echo in June one of my main concerns is that the Fire Risk Assessment (FRA) for Burrell Tower was conducted without a working understanding of fire safety measures applicable to highrise buildings.

In one example, the door closers fitted to the front doors of each property are the ‘positive action’ door closers which always push against you as you are entering or leaving your home – this makes it more difficult for an elderly or disabled person to open the door. The safer type is the passive ‘door-dwell’ closer, which remains open for a few seconds and then closes itself. Another problem identified was that residents were not aware of fire evacuation plans adopted for their building – and in some instances no such plans were in place.

At both Rayner and Burrell towers the fire service’s red box outside the entrances have no effective plan in them. These should include known issues within the building, such as which flats contain elderly or disabled residents who would require assistance in the event of a fire. In Burrell Tower I know of one top-floor resident who is elderly, disabled and deaf – she would not even hear a fire alarm.

Worse still, following a fire in Peckham a few years ago one of the recommendations was that no person who is either elderly or disabled be housed in tower blocks above the fourth floor. This is a recommendation that has never been adopted and in Burrell Tower alone you have four elderly or disabled people housed on the ninth and tenth floors.

I asked the council for a simple test to be conducted, where a smoke generator is deployed inside each tower block to observe the free passage of smoke. This is a simple means of discovering where passive fire safety measures require improvement. But maybe they are scared of what these tests might uncover?

What annoys me most is the clear lack of regulatory control. In the 1980s and 90s, building regulations were tight, with passive fire safety measures designed into each new or upgraded premises, and catastrophes were limited. The free passage of smoke and flame was prohibited. Over recent years those regulations have become so relaxed that we are now seeing fires easily spread and consume entire buildings. This has to be stopped by bringing back tighter regulatory control and thorough inspections.