‘Grenfell brought it all back’: Daughter of woman killed in 2006 council estate fire angry that alarms are still not installed
Camden said 'expense and logistics' prevented them from installing new safety measures
22 June, 2017 — By William McLennan
The 2006 fire which killed pensioner Irene Linnane
THE daughter of a woman killed in a devastating blaze at a tower block in Holborn has said it is “disgraceful” that fire safety measures recommended by a coroner have not been implemented more than a decade later.
Camden Council said it could not install centralised fire alarms across its stock of council housing because of the cost and practicalities despite the course of action being recommended following the death of pensioner Irene Linnane. The Town Hall has also resisted installing sprinkler systems and has not followed through with another recommendation to update fire doors. The decisions have come under scrutiny following the Grenfell Tower tragedy in Kensington which left at least 79 people dead or missing.
Watching the tragedy unfold from her home in Belsize Park last week, Ms Linnane’s daughter Avril Wood was cast back to the day her mother died when flames spread through her 13-storey block in Newton Street in April 2005. A coroner investigating the 70-year-old’s death wrote to the council in 2006 advising it to install fire alarms in all properties, but council chiefs said at the time that “expense and logistics” meant they could not act on the guidance.
Ms Wood said the Grenfell disaster had “brought everything back to me,” adding: “I know how shocked I was, to think of all these poor people. How many lives were lost that could have been saved?”
After hearing the details of how Ms Linnane died – the fire started after she had a lit a candle to mark the death of Pope John Paul II – the then St Pancras coroner Dr Andrew Reid said more needed to be done through the installation of alarms to stop fires spreading through council blocks. “Although I recognise there are issues in interpreting legislation, it’s my duty to write a letter to the London Borough of Camden and ask them to consider the outcome of this for other residents. This was a near miss,” he added. Speaking after the inquest, Ms Wood warned how the daytime fire, which destroyed eight flats, could have claimed many more lives had it occurred at night. She said: “Sprinklers and fire alarms should be essential in tower blocks.”
Twelve years later, neither are in place. Ms Wood was not the only one to revisit harrowing memories. Many were reminded of the deadly blaze at Lakanal House in Camberwell in 2009, the last fire to claim multiple lives at a London tower block. After the inquest into the deaths of the six victims, a judge encouraged all social landlords to retrofit sprinklers in high-rise buildings. Camden Council chose not to install sprinklers in all of its blocks. Instead, it said they have been added to a number of individual flats where residents are considered to be “high risk”. In contrast, Croydon Council announced this week that it was reacting to Grenfell by installing sprinklers in 25 tower blocks over 10 storeys.
Andy Kay, a fire safety engineer and representative of the Association for Specialist Fire Protection, told the New Journal: “Residential sprinklers, I think, are a must. A holistic approach is the correct approach. There has to be passive fire protection and then you have the active systems like sprinklers and alarms.” All modern tower blocks more than 30 metres high must now be fitted with sprinklers at construction but there is not a legal demand to add them to older buildings.
Yesterday (Wednesday), Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn said during the Queen’s Speech debate at the House of Commons: “Local authorities that have seen massive cuts in their budgets over the past years need the resources now to install the necessary sprinkler systems and fire prevention systems. “You cannot just use the excuse that the money is not there. The money has got to be there to ensure we save life in the future.”
The issue of fire safety at Camden’s blocks was raised as recently as February when a GP warned that the number of isolated, elderly people in inappropriate housing had made him seek advice from firefighters. Dr Benjamin Bromilow, of West Hampstead Medical Centre, said that even three-storey terraces converted into flats were a risk for the elderly. He told a cross-party panel of councillors: “We do have patients that by virtue of being frail or even bed-bound, and on top-floor flats, who would simply not survive were a significant fire to break out in their accommodation.”
The risk to the elderly, particularly, was brought home once again in July last year when 86-year-old Ellen Kelly died after accidentally setting her Kilburn home ablaze. On that occasion an inquest heard that her door was not fitted with the necessary “self-closing mechanism”, which meant that it remained open when she attempted to flee the fire, allowing flames to spread and trap another family in their home until they could be rescued by firefighters.
Coroner Edwin Buckett warned Camden Council that he believed safety in the block did not meet legal requirements and that doors “do not comply with the relevant British Standard, in that they are not fire resistant for 30 minutes or more”. The council said at the time that work on replacing doors at Kilburn Gate had been “prioritised and tendered”, but six months later, and a year after Ms Kelly’s death, it has yet to be completed.
In its response to Mr Buckett, the council detailed ongoing fire safety improvements, including work on 4,500 “high-priority” homes that has already been completed at a cost of £5million. It said: “The scope of the works is comprehensive and includes renewal or upgrading flat entrance doors to FD30s standard, signage, emergency lighting installations and fire stopping.”
Although Camden has not universally fitted alarms, sprinklers or updated fire doors, new council leader Georgia Gould insisted a “robust” system was in place to protect tenants. New checks were taking place this week, including the testing of white goods. “We have introduced a range of measures, over and above our already robust fire safety regime, to check and ensure that blocks are as safe as they can be,” she said. “This additional assessment work includes a sweep of corridors to make sure they are clear of obstructions and anything that is potentially flammable. “We will also be working with residents to test white goods, assessing fire doors in properties and providing fire safety advice. “Our housing teams will be highly visible to our residents over the coming days and we want anyone who has any concerns to let us know so we can provide the information they need.”
Cllr Gould added: “In doing all of this work, the council is working side-by-side with district management committees, residents’ associations, our local MPs and the London Fire Brigade to check that fire safety measures and procedures within these buildings continue to meet the latest advice and guidance for all properties. “We are ready to respond to any changes to fire safety advice following this tragic fire and we will provide a further update once testing has been completed.” C