Exclusive: London Fire Brigade overwhelmed by media during Grenfell disaster

There were not enough senior officers to deal with the media and undertake other "non-firefighting tasks" during the fire in which 72 people died, according to a fire chief who gave evidence to the Grenfell Tower Inquiry.

Dany Cotton, Commissioner, London Fire Brigade, giving evidence to the Grenfell Inquiry (Pic credit: BBC)
Dany Cotton, Commissioner, London Fire Brigade, giving evidence to the Grenfell Inquiry (Pic credit: BBC)

A PRWeek analysis of written evidence submitted to the Grenfell inquiry finds how Nicholas Myatt, London Fire Brigade (LFB) station manager at Battersea Fire Station, admitted: "There were so many jobs that needed to be done and we were probably understaffed."


He argued: "We could have done with more senior officers to do some of the non-firefighting tasks."

Myatt added: "We could have been doing more co-ordination with other agencies… and general planning and supporting of each other, including the press side of things."

Reputation under attack

This comes amid renewed scrutiny of the LFB's response to the blaze, with a scathing 'Phase 1' report by the Grenfell inquiry, released last Thursday, accusing it of "significant systemic and operational failings".

Firefighters should have abandoned their 'stay put' advice sooner than they did, at 2.47am, as "prompt evacuation would have resulted in the saving of many more lives", according to the Inquiry's chairman, Sir Martin Moore-Bick.


The report accused LFB Commissioner Dany Cotton of "remarkable insensitivity" to the relatives of the victims and those who survived, due to her "evidence that she would not change anything about the response of the LFB on the night".

Fighting back

In a statement issued in response to the report, Cotton described the fire as "unprecedented" and said it was "precipitated by significant failings of the building's fire safety measures which created impossible conditions that residents and the emergency services must never be placed in again".

Cotton said that the recommendations in the report were welcome and would need to be understood, not only by the LFB, but by government, fire and rescue services and "every residential building owner and manager across the country".

She added: "We are disappointed at some of the criticism of individual staff members who were placed in completely unprecedented circumstances and faced the most unimaginable conditions while trying to save the lives of others."

Controversial issue

However, the majority of people across the country do not think the Grenfell Inquiry’s criticisms of firefighters were fair, according to an exclusive survey published by PRWeek today.


Meanwhile, the controversy over the LFB's 'stay put' advice was reignited yesterday.

Jacob Rees-Mogg, the Leader of the House of Commons, claimed it would have been "common sense" to leave your home and flee the fire.

He "profoundly apologised" after the Grenfell United group dubbed his remarks "insulting".


The shockwaves caused by the blaze continue to reverberate, with the Grenfell Tower Inquiry yet to complete its work. Having established what happened on the night of 14 June 2017, it will now examine the circumstances and causes of the disaster.

The comms response

Evidence submitted to the Inquiry reveals that the magnitude of the Grenfell fire quickly became apparent, with the LFB attempting to contact duty press officer Catherine Allum less than 40 minutes after the fire was first reported.


By 1.54am Allum had been informed of the incident, and Gareth Cook, a fire station manager, was already on the scene as a press liaison officer.

But he was instead tasked with helping to fight the inferno and had to abandon his press duties.

Warning

Cook told the LFB press officer that the fire was "likely to attract a large amount of media attention and we would need to be well prepared for it and have an ability of control and communication with them".

He added: "At approximately 0200hrs I was at the Command Unit and was about to inform them that they would need more press officers. The situation was escalating rapidly and I felt that, as an experienced commander, they would need as many commanders on the ground as possible."

Media management

Glenn Sebright, LFB head of comms, went to brigade headquarters at around 3.30am to "co-ordinate a corporate message in how the incident was being managed", according to LFB assistant commissioner Dan Daly.

Commissioner Cotton arrived on the scene at about 3.39am and met assistant commissioner Andrew Roe, who was the incident commander.

You have to release certain amounts of information to the press because otherwise they become completely 'un-manageable'.

LFB Commissioner Dany Cotton

"They agreed that the Commissioner would not assume command of the incident but would handle 'the wider political and media environment and pan-London picture'," according to the report.

In her written evidence to the inquiry, Cotton said: "You have to release certain amounts of information to the press because otherwise they become completely 'un-manageable'."

Cotton worked with Vicky Hardman, LFB news manager, to co-ordinate the media response and commented: "Dealing with the press was quite time-consuming."

Planning ahead

Back at brigade headquarters, senior officers were already discussing the comms issues that would arise in the aftermath of the fire.

Daly stated: "I was conscious for the potential of a heightened awareness of fire incidents being reported by the public following exposure by media of the incident and the likely impact on residents in high-rise buildings. We needed to have measures in place to meet this expected uplift in demand."

He added: "A communications strategy was constructed shortly after the incident, as many people in London waking up to those images would be concerned residents in high-rise buildings. Those buildings (similar in construction to Grenfell Tower) are not designed for people to self-evacuate. They are designed for people to stay put when a fire is detected or reported."

While there have been some "huge mass evacuations from high-rise buildings" since the Grenfell fire, they have not been "at the level I would have expected," he said.

"There hasn't been the over-reporting of fire-related incidents from residents in high-rise buildings. The work we (Fire Safety Department) had been doing, managed residential expectations around fire safety reassurance," Daly added.


Commissioner Cotton, appearing before the London Assembly’s Fire, Resilience and Emergency Planning Committee yesterday, pledged that the LFB would respond differently if confronted by a fire similar to that at Grenfell Tower in the future.

"Knowing what we know now about Grenfell Tower and similar buildings with ACM cladding, our response would be very different," she said.



Click here to subscribe to the FREE public sector bulletin to receive dedicated public sector news, features and comment straight to your inbox.

Make sure you register for the site to access more than one story per month.

To submit a news, comment, case study or analysis idea for the public sector bulletin, email Ian.Griggs@haymarket.com

Have you registered with us yet?

Register now to enjoy more articles and free email bulletins

Register
Already registered?
Sign in