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Friday, 16 June 2017

Fire, Tragedy and Prevention

The national news media have overplayed the awful tragedy that happened this week in Kensington. Both the BBC and ITV News have overconcentrated on this item, at the national level; and consequently even the catastrophic failure of the Prime Minister to cope with the election result from the previous week has been grossly under-reported. I am not advocating that that fire and its consequences should be ignored or trivialised; but [as a Lancastrian] I am sure that if the fire had happened in Glasgow or Liverpool it would have taken up less of the national news: though the local media would have performed the wonderful community service that has been available in London.

The greatest honour in my life is that I have twice been able to serve as Master of the Worshipful Company of Firefighters, and I have also been a Trustee of the Firefighters Memorial at the south side of St Paul's cathedral for a quarter of a century. Thus I have had the privilege of knowing many firefighting professionals, as well as my fellow-insurers and others who have an interest in fire prevention, fire protection and mitigating the consequences of fire. The response of the London Fire Brigade to the Kensington disaster was absolutely exemplary.

It is far too early to make any definite statement on the reasons why the fire spread so rapidly through the Grenfell Tower: but it was obvious that it spread outside the main structure, as well as within the building. People living in such blocks all over the country urgently need reassurance; and reference to the history and traditions of the fire service and the insurance industry can help a lot here.

Coincidentally, yesterday's piece by the Master of Economic Commentators, Anthony Hilton of the Evening Standard, dealt with a paper from the  recent conference of the Association of Risk and Insurance Managers in Industry and Commerce in which the authors argue that the insurance companies are missing the key fact of the modern economy. This is that around 80% of the recognisable risks that face modern firms are not the traditionally insurable risks of fire, flood and other sources of material damage. He is right to draw attention to that area, and I will refer to it soon: but today I just want to say a very little about the fire tragedy, which is [or should be] absolutely centrally in the insured tradition.

There is a massive history of factory fires in Britain, which have tended especially to occur in times of recession. Hence the early insurance companies insisted on making their own inspections of premises before they would insure them: and making regular sport-check inspections thereafter. The two essential aspects that the inspectors looked for were that the type of structure was entirely suitable for the activities that were to take place within it, and that fire precautions - specifically including sprinklers - were installed and functional.

Whether or not they were traditionally insured, the high-rise blocks of the post-war years had rigorous fire protection measures. The flats within the buildings were each constructed to contain a fire for at least half an hour, before it could spread to other units [known as 'compartmentalisation'] and the external structure had to be absolutely free of flammable materials. it was also imperative that fire escapes were equally free of flammable components.

It was tragically obvious that the cladding of the Grenfell Tower did flare up spectacularly; and that there were no sprinklers in the building.

Regardless of the aesthetic impact, all potentially-flammable materials should be removed from the exterior of high-rise buildings; and sprinklers should be installed - in the first instance, in circulation areas - immediately. Osbornian austerity is [no doubt] partly responsible for the enhanced fire risk in some buildings; and Osbornian austerity must be abandoned to ensure the funding for the necessary works now.

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