Residents in a tower block on Regina Road claim that they may have been misled over fire safety procedures for their homes, after alarms failed to sound when blaze broke out last month.
A senior council official sent a letter to flats in Block 2-56a in the week following a blaze in its rubbish chute, stating that the block’s fire alarms did not sound because that was in line with the controversial “stay put” policy.
“There is a ‘stay put’ policy in place in communal areas such as the corridors so detectors do not sound as this could initiate evacuation and send people into the communal areas where it may be smoky,” the council letter stated.
But the London Fire Brigade has told Inside Croydon that “stay put” is not its policy for all residential tower blocks.
“Stay put” is the same policy which was used at Grenfell Tower in June 2017, when 72 people were killed.
Last month in Regina Road, more than 50 residents ignored the “stay put” policy and left their homes in the early hours of a Sunday morning when neighbours raised the alarm after fire broke out in their block’s rubbish chute.
The block is one of the three 1960s-built towers in South Norwood that are at the centre of a council housing scandal where tenants endure leaks, damp and mould and unhealthy living conditions.
Five fire engines from the LFB attended and had the fire under control within an hour. No one was hurt.
The council’s letter to residents in the days following the incident was from Croydon’s interim head of “tenancy, caretaking, resident involvement and community development”, Sharon Murphy (who is also known locally as “Karen”).
“We are extremely grateful to residents who raised the alarm to others living in the block so they were able to leave the building quickly,” Murphy wrote, apparently contradicting the council’s policy.
“We want to offer reassurance to residents about the fire safety alarms systems working as they should have done.” Residents confirmed that no fire alarm sounded.
Murphy stated that, “There is a ‘stay put’ policy in place in communal areas such as the corridors so detectors do not sound as this could initiate evacuation and send people into the communal areas where it may be smoky.
“It is usually better to stay inside your flat because your front door is a fire door and you are better protected.”
No sprinklers operated during the incident, either, although a ventilation system was activated to draw smoke out of the communal lobby areas.
The LFB’s local fire safety team carried out an audit of the block after the fire.
“The building was found to be largely compliant,” according to the Fire Brigade. “A small issue with the bin room doors was identified and we have raised this with Croydon Council and we understand they are rectifying the issue.”
In response to questions from residents about the “stay put” policy, the LFB said, “Our understanding is this building does have a ‘stay put’ policy… (this is not an LFB policy), which forms part of the fire risk assessment for the building which is the responsibility of the owners and managers of the building. The ‘stay put’ advice is to stay inside your flat unless affected by fire, heat or smoke.
“‘Stay put’ isn’t a London Fire Brigade or a fire and rescue service policy. It’s a principle of building design and construction strategy and applies nationally.”
This confirms that the use of “stay put” in Regina Road is the decision of Croydon Council, despite the block’s owners having received multiple requests for repairs to fire doors throughout the block. “Stay put” depends entirely on fire doors keeping any blaze at bay for long enough for the emergency services to arrive on scene.
The Fire Brigade also confirmed that none of the fire alarms nor sprinklers in the building operated on the night of the fire.
“The sprinkler system in the bin room did not activate due to the fire being of a smouldering type, which produces large amounts of smoke but does not provide enough heat to activate the system. In addition there is a fire shutter door at the bottom of the chute, which is also activated by a fusible link. Again this did not operate due to the type of fire.
“There are sprinklers fitted in the flats which worked how they should – there was no spread of fire to the flats so they would not and should not have activated. The communal smoke detection system did activate – they are soundless and activated the ventilation system to clear the smoke.”
“Stay put” fire policies have tended t be used in residential tower blocks taller than the 12-storey Regina Road flats, or where an issue with external cladding has been identified (the cladding on the Regina Road flats is not the kind that was present at Grenfell Tower).
Guidance from the National Fire Chiefs Council suggests that buildings identified as “high risk” because of unsuitable external cladding or failings of other fire safety measures, “interim fire safety arrangements should be adopted…”, including “temporarily changing the evacuation strategy from ‘stay put’ to simultaneous evacuation, supported by the installation of a common fire alarm or a waking watch”.
Such a decision, the NFCC says, can only be taken “by a competent fire safety professional”.
Today, a London Fire Brigade spokesperson confirmed, “’Stay put’ is not a London Fire Brigade or fire and rescue service policy or procedure.”
They explained, “It is a building design and construction strategy which is applicable nationally.”
“If a fire breaks out in another part of your building and you are not affected by fire, heat or smoke, our advice is that it is generally safer to stay within your flat unless conditions change. If you leave your flat you could be rushing into dangerous smoke, the fire itself or firefighters using equipment to bring the fire under control in another part of the building.”
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A “stay put” policy only makes sense if you have a fire door to the communal areas AND there is no external flammable cladding that will breach your windows. (Residential window generally have very limited fire resistance). Yes, you could stay put if the fire is only in an internal communal area but how would you know that? However it’s interesting that the LFB are now distancing themselves from a “stay put” policy after defending their response to Grenfell.
Often stairwells and escape corridors are sized in anticipation that a percentage of building occupiers will stay put in a fire event that’s not directly impacting their floor.
What happens in a 30 storey building where a fire breaks out on level 28 and the stairs become jammed because everyone is escaping at the same time? This is what the Brigade says should happen?
Tall office buildings have a thing called phased evacuation where only those in close proximity to the fire event are told to leave, allowing the stairs to remain open and useable. Without phasing, the stair would be jammed and full of stationary escapees after a short time only begin moving slowly afterwards. Phased evacuation in office buildings is like stay put in residential buildings.
If you wanted everyone to safely exit a tall building at the same time you’d need many more staircases.
LFB today came and reviewed our block of flats. They stated that a ‘stay put’ policy was standard in purpose built blocks of flats unless we could justify an evacuation which they actively resisted. This stay put policy was to the extent that they wanted us to remove our communal fire alarm system in the common areas as they did not want residents leaving flats. I’m sorry but if my building is on fire I want to know about it so I can at least make the best decision possible in the circumstances. That means being conscious, not sleeping through and dying from smoke inhalation.
Can you identify your block of flats, Louise?