A serious failure of a smoke ventilation system that resulted in the building acting like a “broken chimney” left residents’ only escape route smoke logged during the New Providence Wharf fire, a report released today by London Fire Brigade has said.
The report confirms that the fire on May 7th 2021 started in a consumer unit, known more commonly as the fuse board, in an 8th floor flat. Due to the severity of the fire more testing is needed to find out how exactly the consumer unit failed.
The fire then travelled out of an open balcony window. At the same time smoke poured into the corridor through a flat door that had accidentally been kept open.
The Brigade’s provisional investigation into the fire has found that in this particular instance, ACM cladding panels did not significantly contribute to the external spread of the fire.
The response to New Providence Wharf fire demonstrated the significant changes the Brigade has made since the Grenfell Tower fire. Increased numbers of firefighters and appliances initially sent to high rise fires as standard; familliarisation visits conducted by crews prior to the fire, the introduction new evacuation procedures; improved communications between the control room and the incident ground; and fire escape hoods - backed by the professionalism of firefighters and control officers all helped save lives.
On arrival firefighters immediately focused on responding to a number of rescue calls that had come into Brigade control centre. This resulted in 35 rescues, 22 involving fire escape hoods. Overall, only two people were taken to hospital as a result of the fire.
The initial findings from Senior Brigade Fire Investigators show that the smoke detectors on the 8th floor communal corridor failed to operate both the Automatic Opening Vent (AOV) and the cross corridor fire doors.
It is the responsibility of the building owner or manager to make sure the AOV, which is designed to ventilate and extract smoke during a fire to help residents escape, operates correctly.
Following the release of its preliminary fire investigation report, the Brigade is urging all those responsible for high rise buildings, especially those in charge of properties that no longer support a stay put strategy, as was the case at New Providence Wharf, to check their fire safety measures including smoke ventilation systems (such as AOVs) as a priority. These should be regularly inspected and any issues acted upon.
The spread of fire on the outside of the building from floors 8 to 11 is believed to have been facilitated by timber decking on the balconies - but not ACM panels. Government advice issued in January 2020 states that: “Balconies should not assist fire spread along the external wall. Balconies including combustible materials may not meet an appropriate standard of safety and could pose a risk to the health and safety of residents and other building users.”
The Brigade is asking all building owners and managers to check the materials used on external balconies and consider whether they could contribute to the spread of fire, and if necessary modify them as soon as possible.
The Brigade’s parallel investigation into possible breaches of fire safety regulations at New Providence Wharf at the time of the fire is continuing.
London Fire Brigade Deputy Commissioner Richard Mills said: “The smoke ventilation system inside New Providence Wharf acted like a broken chimney leading to a potentially life-threatening situation. Had it not been for the exceptional actions of our firefighters and 999 control officers this could have had tragic consequences.
“Despite our response to this fire and drawing on the many lessons learned from the Grenfell Tower fire, in many cases we are sadly still not seeing a culture change in all those responsible for fire safety in high rise buildings.
“The New Providence Wharf fire needs to be an urgent wake-up call to all building owners and managers. Look at the fire safety solutions inside your building and take action if they are not performing correctly. It is too late to wait for a fire to see if they work.”