Grenfell firefighters 'hampered by equipment'

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Media captionWhy did it take so long to get an aerial platform to the tower block? BBC Newsnight investigates

A series of failings that hampered the efforts of firefighters to tackle the Grenfell Tower fire and rescue the building's residents have been identified by a BBC investigation.

Crews cited low water pressure, radio problems and equipment that was either lacking or did not arrive before the fire on 14 June got out of control.

Newsnight has learned a high ladder did not arrive for more than 30 minutes.

The London Fire Brigade says it has changed its procedures since the fire.

A high ladder will now automatically be sent to a fire in a tower.

An independent fire expert said having the high ladder, which is also known as an "aerial", available earlier would have given firefighters a better chance of stopping the blaze when it jumped from a fourth floor flat in the tower block and began to race up the side of the building.

More than 200 firefighters and 40 fire engines were involved in battling the blaze that engulfed the block in North Kensington, west London.

About 300 people are believed to have lived in Grenfell Tower and most got out on their own.

The fire brigade rescued 65 people but at least 80 people are thought to have died.

Firefighters have been told not to talk to the media but Newsnight obtained a copy of the "incident mobilisation list", the document which details every appliance dispatched to the incident.

The programme was also sent anonymous accounts from a number of men and women involved in the operation.

The mobilisation list revealed that the 30m (100ft) aerial, which could reach the 10th floor of Grenfell Tower, was not dispatched until 01:19 BST, 24 minutes after the first crews were sent to fight what had started as a fridge fire on the fourth floor.

The aerial did not arrive until 01:32 BST, by which time the fire had raced up the building's cladding.

Image caption The list entry A213 shows the ladder did not arrive until 32 minutes after the first crews

Matt Wrack, general secretary of the Fire Brigades Union, said: "I have spoken to aerial appliance operators in London... who attended that incident, who think that having that on the first attendance might have made a difference, because it allows you to operate a very powerful water tower from outside the building onto the building."

A London Fire Brigade (LFB) spokesman confirmed the so-called "pre-determined attendance" for a tower fire - the list of appliances which are automatically dispatched - has been changed from four engines to five engines plus an aerial.

The spokesman said: "An 'interim' change to pre-determined attendance for high rise buildings was introduced in direct response to the government's action to address concerns of cladding on buildings.

"The Brigade's pre-determined attendance to high rise buildings had already been increased in June 2015 from three fire engines to four as part of our ongoing review of high rise firefighting.

"It is important to understand that fires in high rise buildings are nearly always dealt with internally, not usually needing an aerial appliance.

"The fundamental issue of high rise safety remains that buildings are maintained to stop fires spreading."

The spokesman added: "The Brigade has a fleet of specialist aerial firefighting appliances and these attend a variety of incidents across the capital."

'Helmet-meltingly hot'

Newsnight's investigation also heard that firefighters had struggled with water pressure problems and the fire service had to call Thames Water to ask the company to increase pressure in the area.

One firefighter said: "The fire floors we went in were helmet-meltingly hot… when we were clearing flats, it was a case of a quick look and closing doors because the water pressure wasn't up to firefighting."

A Thames Water spokesman said: "We've been supporting the emergency services' response in every way possible… any suggestion there was low pressure or that Thames Water did not supply enough water to fire services during this appalling tragedy is categorically false."

Image copyright PA

Firefighters also described problems with radio reception inside the building and said they lacked enough of the "extended duration" breathing apparatus they needed, especially when reaching the higher floors of the building.

All fire engines have basic breathing apparatus that provides firefighters with oxygen for around 30 minutes.

The extended duration apparatus enables them to breathe for a theoretical 45 minutes - but working in dense smoke and intense heat 20 storeys up uses up the compressed air in the equipment more quickly.

The LFB said all of its rescue units carry extended duration apparatus and "all of the fire brigade's rescue units attended the incident".

Inquiry into response

The LFB said the police investigation into the fire would examine the brigade's response "including all of the issues Newsnight has raised".

Questions have also been raised about why a 42m firefighting platform had to be called in from Surrey to fight the fire at Grenfell - itself 67m high - because the LFB does not have one of its own.

The LFB spokesman said it had never responded to a fire on the scale of Grenfell Tower before.

He said: "The commissioner has made clear her intention to fully review the brigade's resources and seek funding for any additional requirements."

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