Grenfell: Construction debris ‘jammed essential fire control switch’

Aftermath of the Grenfell Tower fire (image: Dreamstime)
Aftermath of the Grenfell Tower fire (image: Dreamstime)

Construction dust and debris generated during the refurbishment of Grenfell Tower may have contaminated an “essential” fire control switch, preventing firefighters from taking control of the lifts in the building during the June 2017 disaster that killed 72 people, the Grenfell Tower Inquiry has heard.

As the Inquiry heard more opening statements as part of the start of module three of the second phase of the process, Martin Seaward, barrister for the Fire Brigades Union (FBU), focused on the issue of the lifts at the tower and why they didn’t work as they should have done on the night of the fire.

The fire control switch was an important firefighting control in the tower, set high up on the wall between the lifts. It was designed to be operated by an express drop release key, which would cause both lifts to descend to ground level, the car doors to open, and thereafter remain under the control of firefighters, disabling the call buttons higher up in the tower. The aim of the system was to stop residents from becoming trapped in the heat and smoke of a lift car or lobby.

But firefighters could not get the switch to work despite repeated attempts. Seaward suggested that the inoperable switch “may have had fatal consequences” with three fatalities recovered in the lift lobby at floor 10, with the possibility that these people may have been in the lift when it left floor 11 and then exited when the car became filled with thick, acrid smoke. None of the residents would have been in the lift if the fire control switch had worked, he contended.

Witness evidence of lift engineers from PDERS and Bureau Veritas suggested the fire control switch worked shortly before the fire and the reason that it didn’t work on the night of the fire may have been due to the firefighters using the wrong size of key.

But the FBU rejected that assessment and contended that instead it was because the switch was blocked and jammed with construction debris.

Seaward showed images from an inspection made in 2018 that determined the switch mechanism was “seized and damaged” and that the inner mechanism was “caked with builders’ debris” including wall plaster grains from the original works and not caused by the extraction of the switch. After the switch was cleaned of debris, it worked.

Seaward said: “The FBU therefore invites the panel to investigate whether the blockage would have prevented firefighters operating the fire control switch on the night, whichever type of drop key was used.”

He added: “How it got into that state the panel may also wish to investigate, how the fire control switch came to be caked with builders’ debris. [Resident] Shahid Ahmed complained of misuse and overuse of the lift during the refurbishment, and Simon Lawrence of Rydon admitted using the lifts daily to get materials up the building, so there was plenty of builders’ dust and debris generated by the works in the vicinity of the ground floor switch.”

He said: “During the main refurbishment works, the ground floor switch had been disconnected, a temporary fire control switch had been installed at walkway level on floor 2, this temporary floor switch had been disconnected by August 2016, the ground floor fire control switch had been reconnected from about the same time, August 2016, and the disconnected temporary fire control switch had been left in place on floor 2, whereas it should have been removed. The Inquiry may conclude that the ground floor fire control switch should not have become contaminated with builders’ debris if it had been secured or covered during the works, and thus infer, as the FBU contends, that it was probably left vulnerable and thereby exposed to contamination by plaster dust and debris after the temporary fire control switch was installed at walkway level on floor 2. How else could it have become contaminated by builders’ debris?”

Seward claimed that reconnecting the switch in the state it was in showed a “shocking disregard for an essential firefighting feature of the tower”. The person who reconnected the switch has not been identified.

The Inquiry continues.

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