A false paradigm
I have great sympathy for the firemen who have given evidence to the Grenfell Inquiry in recent weeks.
For one thing, they have been ill-served by the method of questioning used. The firefighters have been asked to recall what for most of them will be the most chaotic, disastrous and painful night of their lives. These are people who have dedicated their lives to saving people at risk from fire. Many appear devastated with guilt by what happened. With this background, they have been asked to recall specific details of what happened and when they happened. At times this has resulted in long painful pauses, followed by responses like “sorry, I don’t remember” – with the firefighters apologising as if they had let people down by not remembering. More open questions, focusing on what they did remember (rather than what they didn’t) might have been more useful.
I have also heard people talking nonsense about the fire brigade’s response. For example, someone tweeting that a more recent fire in West Hampstead was only put out so efficiently because well-off people lived in the flats.
The facts are that the first emergency call was made at six minutes to one in the morning. The fire brigade were on site within five minutes. They were in the flat within thirteen minutes of the call, and had put the fire in the kitchen out in little more than twenty minutes from the call. I saw a firefighter give evidence. At the moment he put the fire out he thought it was the end of another regulation job.
The problem, of course, was that it wasn’t just the kitchen that was alight. The cladding going up the sides of the building was alight too. The fire brigade’s paradigm was that cladding doesn’t, shouldn’t, didn’t burn. I saw a firefighter who saw burning material falling passed the window of the flat asked if he thought that it was cladding. He said no. He thought cladding didn’t burn.
Many of the subsequent events followed from this, false paradigm.
But the fire brigade’s paradigm wasn’t the “root cause” (as people in the NHS would refer to it) of those events. The root cause was that something that shouldn’t have burnt, did burn.
I draw two conclusions.
One, although the fire brigade will have questions to answer, focussing the blame on them is misplaced.
Second, changing a mistaken view, understanding or analysis while events are unfolding is nigh on impossible. Careful analysis, often with the help of an independent perspective, is usually essential.
There is a long way to go with the Inquiry, but it has already taught many important lessons. I strongly recommend the BBC’s daily Inquiry podcast to anyone who wants to know more.