High rise buildings - firefighting arrangements: report
164. Some of the fire station-based personnel we spoke to expressed concern regarding the ability to deal with a riser failure due to the Service's new pumping appliances carrying less firefighting hose than older vehicles. Staff also raised concern with regard to the potential for a Rapid Response Unit (RRU) to be an attending appliance. While these concerns were raised as a potential, there were no examples where this had been an issue.
165. Radio communications can be affected by the characteristics of individual buildings, and given that SFRS crews visit domestic high rise buildings at least four times a year, then the Service should be well sighted if there are known issues with particular domestic high rise buildings.
166. Radio communications at the Grenfell Tower fire in London were described in the Inquiry report as unreliable.
167. Improvement in radio communications at incidents is a recurring issue with the SFRS and of course is not an issue unique to high rise incidents. We have received regular feedback from fire station personnel during our local area inspection work that there is a desire for firefighters to have improved and more reliable portable radios. During our fieldwork for the high rise inspection, feedback from personnel on radios was more mixed.
168. At a high rise incident, the incident commander is located at the entry level and can feel a remoteness from the firefighting activities. Reliable communications is therefore important for incident command arrangements to be effective.
169. We have commented previously on portable radios in the SFRS in a report published in 2020. During the relevant fieldwork for that inspection it was identified that the SFRS was addressing weakness identified in incident ground communications, and had a commitment to procure new digital fireground radios. We made a formal recommendation in our report that the user implementation group for the procurement of new digital fireground radios should include end users.
170. The effects of the Covid-19 pandemic have had an influence on the Service's progress of the radio replacement scheme. Provision of replacement radios is an ongoing project that the Service thinks might take a further five years to complete. We believe, given the importance of reliable communication, not only in high rise buildings but for all operational incidents, that the Service should consider this schedule and take appropriate steps to ensure that this issue is resolved within a reasonable timeframe.
171. The SFRS is well engaged with national developments relative to high rise through representation on the NFCC Fires in Tall Buildings Working Group.
172. Full evacuation of high rise domestic buildings is very uncommon. Partial evacuation has a more common potential to occur: and even a full evacuation will likely occur as a phased development. Because high rise domestic buildings operate with a 'stay put' arrangement, full or partial building evacuation during a fire is normally initiated by the FRS.
173. The existing arrangement for evacuation involves firefighters knocking on the doors of persons considered at risk from the fire to alert those persons and evacuate them.
174. Evacuation policy arrangements and training are the subject of a recommendation from the GTI and there is an obvious relationship between evacuation and the provision of information on resident's capability to self-evacuate. We have already mentioned PEEPs and record keeping in respect of resident capability and the associated difficulties.
175. In response to the GTI recommendation, the UK government has been involved along with partners, in evacuation policy development. At the time of writing, research is ongoing including involvement by the University of Central Lancashire.
176. The SFRS has been developing improvements to its own evacuation procedures. As an interim improvement, it introduced a record sheet into the high rise SOP for recording evacuation. It has developed a draft evacuation procedure and has trialled this at table top exercises and at a number of role play rehearsals in a vacant high rise block. Scenarios have been designed to test evacuation procedures and FSG handling with scenarios withheld from crews to reflect realistic conditions.
177. While we have seen a draft version of an SFRS evacuation manual, it is an unfinished document subject to alteration and accordingly we have made no assessment of it.
178. One of the challenges which will face the Service in the future is the maintenance of skills and awareness of the evacuation procedure because it will be infrequently required in practice.
179. The Service operates a number of Command Support Units (CSUs): these are crewed and operated by firefighters on the dual crewing system. At a prolonged high rise incident, CSUs have a role to play in record keeping and communications. CSUs and their crews have been involved in the evacuation rehearsals.
180. One of the factors for a CSU is set-up time. There may be a significant time delay for attendance due to the appliance location and crewing arrangement of the CSUs.
181. We have previously reported on the training and development of CSU crews in a separate report.
Fire survival guidance
182. The SFRS's Operations Control rooms deal with receipt of calls, mobilising, and communications. One of the areas for development is the arrangement for multiple fire survival guidance calls, and 'talk group' radio procedures. Some of this development work is national and the SFRS is well engaged.
183. The outcome of the GTI has caused the SFRS to assess its capacity to deal with multiple FSG calls. There are interrelationships between the recording of FSG information, the availability of this information and the importance of good communications and access to the information at the incident. The Service has developed and tested its procedures during its evacuation exercises.
184. Normal firefighting procedures in high rise buildings involves hose passing through door openings and since the door will be held ajar by this hose, smoke can spread into escape routes. Many domestic high rise buildings have a single stair and a consequence of firefighting could be smoke-logging of the sole escape route. One way to reduce this is by the use of a temporary smoke barrier. The SFRS has been researching the use of smoke curtains and is procuring them to be carried on fire appliances. The final disposition is still to be determined. This should be a useful addition for use at some high rise fires.
185. The provision of smoke hoods by FRSs was a recommendation from the GTI. Smoke hoods (or escape hoods) offer particulate filtration and provide some respiratory protection for short term exposure to smoke. The SFRS has researched the provision of smoke hoods, and this has included analysis of incident data and liaison with other FRSs that were undertaking trials of the equipment.
186. The outcome is that the Service has procured smoke hoods with a view to carrying two per fire appliance. This will enhance the SFRS's rescue capability at all types of fires and particularly at high rise fires.
The provision of smoke hoods and smoke curtains is an example of the SFRS improving its firefighting and rescue capability and taking into account recommendations of the GTI.
187. This report contains recommendations where we think that the SFRS has scope to improve performance and consistency regarding its arrangements for firefighting in high rise buildings. Our overall assessment is positive and we acknowledge that the Service is working to progress certain workstreams for areas under development.