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FIRE, after Grenfell

”Nothing to see here” approach means Ireland’s Fire Safety Task Force was wrongly comprised, only looked at buildings over 6 storeys and assessed only half of the 226 buildings identified as at risk

By Orla Hegarty and Lorcan Sirr

 

IT WAS PURE LUCK that the March 2015 fire in Millfield Manor in Kildare didn’t kill anyone. The luck factor was that the fire happened midafternoon when many people were out at work. In less than thirty minutes, a terrace of six timber-framed houses burned down. The next year, five reports into safety failings in Irish schools confirmed that the issues are not limited to housing. In 2017, a tower of social housing in London, Grenfell Tower, caught fire. A series of technical failings, including combustible cladding, resulted in more than 72 people losing their lives. A 2018 report found that their “current system of building regulations and fire safety is not fit for purpose and that a culture change is required”.

The Irish response to these events – in a country where timber-frame houses are prevalent, and where construction has fewer controls than in the UK and no independent oversight – has effectively been ‘nothing to see here’.

The then Minister for the Environment, Alan Kelly, commissioned a report into the Millfield Manor fire. It was due to be published in January 2016. The report eventually saw daylight in mid-2017, but only after a round of Freedom of Information requests. When he saw the report, Alan Kelly said it was not in accordance with the terms of reference. Significantly, the report didn’t look at failings in the regulatory system; and it referred homeowners in other estates back to their own architects and engineers, the very same people who had been waiting for official guidance from the report

The 24-page document that was published largely restated existing regulations and offered advice on how to prevent fires; there was no mention of concerns about timber-frame construction, or the Department’s own report in 2003 that had warned about timber-frame construction which subsequently accounted for up to 30% of homes built in the boom and which make up a substantial proportion of new estates now under construction; and nor did the report use the houses as a case study, as it was claimed it was supposed to do. Councillor Cian O’Callaghan called the report a “spectacular failure”.

Last year Minister Eoghan Murphy established a Task Force to carry out a review after the Grenfell Tower tragedy, which was published in May of this year as ‘Fire Safety in Ireland’. The composition of the Task Force is worth noting. More than 80% of the Task Force who authored the report were civil or public servants with only three external members out of eighteen (one from SIPTU, one fire engineer and one architect). 45% of the membership
came from the Department of Housing, Planning and Local Government itself who are responsible for fire safety regulations. Following Grenfell, the UK government established an independent expert advisory panel and this group have been reporting as the issues emerge.

The terms of reference of the report pulled its punches with a very limited scope of reference. The most notable limitation was in the type of buildings that were to be examined in the report: only multiunit social housing and buildings “more than 6 storeys or more than 18m with external cladding or rainscreen systems” were to be examined (842 in total). This therefore ignored buildings up to five floors, critically excluding buildings such as schools,
hospitals, shopping centres, student housing and even airports, as well as the thousands of apartments (many of timber frame construction) built during the boom where residents have been calling for a national audit of fire safety risks . In addition, the report offers reassurances about cladding, detection and alarms, without assessing the substantial risks of fire and smoke spread due to inadequate compartmentation and poor construction.

In May the Fire Safety Task Force concluded “at this point the combination of contributory factors which gave rise to the Grenfell Tower tragedy do not appear to be present in buildings in Ireland”. It had identified 226 buildings where building owners were required to assess the fire safety risk because of their cladding, but there is no indication of where they are. Five hospitals have been named as the subject of a HSE investigation, although at the conclusion of the Task Force’s work fewer than half (47%) of the buildings identified as being at risk had even been technically assessed and in some cases no progress had been made because the building owner wasn’t identified. There is no duty to notify occupants of the buildings concerned. The locations are known to the local fire services in the 31 local authorities, but the Task Force compiling the report did not have this information.

Indeed, finding information on fire safety is no easy task in Ireland. Each fire authority is obliged to keep at its offices a register of fire safety notices served by it and the register must be open to inspection by any person at all reasonable times. Try getting access to the register, however, and in many instances you are met with “why do you want to see it?”, “are you looking for something specific? ”and “you’ll have to make an appointment”, all of which are hardly in keeping with the spirit of a “public register”, but very much in line with the spirit of “nothing to see here”. Or maybe more accurately, “there may or may not be anything here to see, but we’re damned if we’re going to make it easy for you to find out”.

Under the provisions of section 20(1) of the Fire Services Act 1981, fire authorities may issue a fire safety notice on the owner of a building if they are of the opinion the building is unsafe. Such notices can prohibit the use of the building or parts or it; direct the owner to carry out certain fire-safetyrelated works (such as appropriate maintenance of fire signage, or installation of fire extinguishers). Problems with fire-detection systems, fire alarms, emergency lighting and smoke ventilation were the main reasons for fire safety notices being issued in 2017, along with people using commercial properties for residential use. Dublin City Council fire authority served 33 fire safety notices in 2017, of which 11 were served on residential properties. This is indicative of a policy of negotiation, rather than enforcement, based on the principle that building defects and occupant safety are primarily the concern of the building owner.

The implications of both the Millfield Manor and Grenfell Tower fires are broader than have been acknowledged in Ireland. Recent events tell us that avoiding the hard truths does not make them go away – in fact it will perpetuate a culture that continues to put both the fire services and the public at risk.

When we rent an apartment, buy a cinema ticket or are admitted to hospital, we need to be able to trust that we will be safe, and that is far more important than defending the current system at all costs and pretending that all is well. Inertia or a fear of what might emerge simply isn’t good enough.

 

Orla Hegarty is an Assistant Professor at the School of Architecture, Planning and Environmental Policy, UCD.
Dr Lorcan Sirr is a Senior Lecturer in housing in the School of Real Estate and Construction Economics at Dublin Institute of Technology.