May 30, 2018

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Weak authority response to Grenfell fire left leadership void – report

Authorities displayed ‘weak leadership’ in the immediate response to the Grenfell fire last year, showing the lack of preparedness for domestic disaster, a new report has found.

Mind the Gap: A Review of the Voluntary Sector Response to the Grenfell Tragedy’ says that there are many serious lessons to be learned from the disaster, particularly in utilising the willing and immediate support of the voluntary sector.

The report, launched today (30 May), was commissioned by relief and development agency Muslim Aid. It emphasises the role that voluntary organisations played in the response, stepping in ‘where the statutory authorities fell short, especially in the early stages’.

The blaze at the 24-storey Grenfell Tower in the early hours of 14 June 2017 left 72 dead and many more homeless. In March, local government minister Lord Bourne said that over 80 households have yet to been relocated following the fire.

The report praises the response from a wide range of voluntary groups to provide shelter, support, clothes and food for those affected, but also highlights difficulties met during the response: ‘Very few staff or volunteers had any background in or preparation for dealing with emergencies. Some local voluntary sector leaders tried to contact one another on the first day, though for many this proved difficult… The sheer volume of donated goods such as water and clothing became a major logistical problem.’

In particular, the report raises questions about the leadership shown by local authorities: ‘Those closest to the scene, whether residents or voluntary organisations, saw very little coordinated response from local or central government. Organisations were looking to be told how to direct their efforts; as one centre leader put it: ‘I just wanted to be told what to do’.’

Under the 2004 Civil Contingencies Act, the voluntary sector is considered a Category 2 responder. Category 1 responders – principally the emergency services, health providers and local authorities – need to ‘have regard’ for the work of the voluntary sector. However the report suggests that the voluntary organisations on the ground were kept out of the loop and ‘left to their own devices’. It highlights that ‘the first general meeting of the Kensington and Chelsea Social Council, the locally recognised voluntary sector ‘infrastructure’ body, was held more than a week after the fire.’

Muslim Aid’s CEO Jehangir Malik said: “An array of local organisations and businesses, as well as individual volunteers and representatives from external organisations, filled the void where there was a lack of official direction, coordination and information.

“I would have expected this chaos in a developing country, because almost always there is poor infrastructure. I honestly thought we had better disaster preparedness and response systems here in the UK. We are now asking for lessons to be learned and for greater coordination of the voluntary organisations with local authorities, including as part of national emergency response structures.”

Many local organisations in particular have seen their work transformed as a result of engaging with the emergency and its aftermath, with a particular focus on mental health support.

Lessons to be learned

The report calls on authorities across the country to learn from the failings from the response to Grenfell to ensure that they are not repeated during any future disasters.

‘It would be easy to dismiss Grenfell as a one-off, compounded by the failings of a particularly flawed local authority,’ said the report. ‘But there are aspects that could play out again at a time when the frequency of disasters in the UK is likely to increase due to climate change, vulnerability to terror attacks and the inherent risks of life in crowded, unequal cities…’

‘While the precise circumstances may prove unique, the disaster also highlighted deep-seated societal and institutional stresses… Official bodies charged with leading emergencies are often overwhelmed, incompetent or worse, and this is not the first instance in the UK where serious mistakes were made by those responsible for managing a crisis, as the families and friends of the victims of the Hillsborough disaster will testify.’

The report concludes: ‘The Grenfell Tower disaster must be a wake-up call to those in a position to effect change and find twenty-first century solutions to twenty-first century challenges.’

Some key recommendations in the report for augmenting UK disaster preparedness are:

Draw on local capacities: In a major, complex disaster, local secular and faith organisations, although they may not have experience in emergency response, can draw on their local rootedness to act quickly and sensitively in line with the needs of communities they understand. This capability needs to be better appreciated and supported including in partnership with local authorities and national actors with expertise in emergency response.

Context matters: Disaster response systems, behaviours and interventions all need to be tailored to the varying local socio-economic and cultural dynamics in the short and longer term.

Embrace diversity within emergency response: Diverse communities need to receive support that is sensitive to their varying needs. Such capabilities need to be embraced as core to emergency response in the UK going forward.

Strengthen coordination: More effective mechanisms need to be developed, both by the voluntary sector itself and governmental authorities, to better harness the collective capabilities of the voluntary sector, including those offered by faith organisations, in emergency response.

Act and speak out: when the effects of a disaster are overlaid with inadequate action and injustice the voluntary sector needs to consciously and continuously strike the right balance between practical action and finding different ways of speaking out in support of the needs and rights of the people who are affected.

Earlier this month Dame Judith Hackett delivered her final recommendations for improving fire safety in the built environment following the Grenfell Tower fire. The report concluded that indifference and ignorance led to a “race to the bottom” in building safety practices but did not recommend an explicit ban on combustible cladding.

Brian Robinson CBE, QFSM, FSF President, Fire Sector Federation, will deliver a keynote address on the Hackitt Report at FIREX 2018. The fire sector response to Hackitt’s Independent Review of Building Regulations and Fire Safety will take place on 19 June, between 10.45-11.15am, in the FIREX Expertise & Guidance Theatre at London ExCeL.


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5 years ago

SHP should not really promulgate reports by non-independent organisations without validation by independent means