"Basically what Salford City Council is telling us is that, if you stay put in your flat you stand a good chance of dying, and if you leave you stand a good chance of dying…" Jamie Loftus
When Jamie Loftus, a resident who lives on the top floor of Whitebeam Court in Pendleton, asked under the Freedom of Information Act for his block's fire risk assessments the request was refused by Salix Homes "in the public interest".
On appeal, having written to lots of councillors, Jamie finally got hold of three fire risk assessments for Whitebeam Court dating back five years – and was horrified at what they contained. The place was a potential `towering inferno'…
A report by Urban Vision in 2008 recommended 18 fire safety measures deemed "necessary to bring the flats up to an acceptable standard". These included "missing" smoke seals and strips on refuse hoppers to the rubbish chute… "In the event of a fire on the ground floor rubbish area this rubbish chute together with the lack of fire door would pump smoke directly into the escape routes…"
The actual rubbish chutes themselves were separated from people's flats with a sliding door "that is clearly not a fire door", while the actual doors to the individual flats were also inadequate… they "should be half hour rated fire doors and be fitted with automatic self closing devices and fitted with adequate hinges and smoke/intumescent seals, the letter plates in the doors should be fire rated with smoke/intumescent seals".
There were lots of other things too, like the block's recycling bins being too close to the building which, if set on fire, "would possibly escalate and quickly spread into the internal fabric the building". And, if anyone did make it to the ground floor they would find "the means of opening the final exit door is inadequate and would be difficult to find and operate in the event of a fire."
The cost of bringing Whitebeam Court up to acceptable fire safety standards was estimated by Urban Vision at £139,000.
In 2010 another fire risk assessment of Whitebeam Court raised even more concerns, including those above which still hadn't been resolved. The latest survey, from 2012, included nine "substantial" fire risks, this time blocked out in bright red, again highlighting some of the concerns raised five years previously.
The "substantial" risks included..."evidence…that cables and pipe routes through communal areas, above false ceilings and in risers, are not fire stopped and present a significant risk of fire spread".
Incredibly, there were no technical drawings available to confirm that each floor was `compartmented', or fire sealed to stop a blaze or smoke spreading; and there had been no assessment of the flats' interiors to show that each of them was fire and smoke sealed.
This is very important because Salix Homes has a `stay put' policy in the event of a fire, where, unless the fire breaks out in their own dwelling, residents are supposed to remain in their flat which should be fire and smoke proof for at least thirty minutes, allowing the firemen to reach them.
The report also noted that there had been "no known fires in the last five years" - which was news to Jamie Loftus, as it was a fire in the block about three years ago that had alerted him to potential problems at Whitebeam Court. Smoke had indeed penetrated the flats on six floors through a vent in the bathrooms.
"It was 2 o' clock in the afternoon" Jamie recalls "The firemen who attended told me that, had it been 2 o' clock in the morning, it would have been very serious. I took that up with Salix Homes and was told that the smoke vent in the bathroom would shut on the occurrence of smoke and fire. I have pointed out that it's been proved that it will not shut."
Jamie knows his stuff. He was a fireman, then a fire safety officer at BP and AMEC amongst other companies. He believes that he, and other tenants, are living in a potential death trap.
"If that fire which happened on the sixth floor happened today will it fill the rest of the floors with smoke? Yes" he insists "These flats are not compartmentalised. They know that by telling us to stay in these flats, the places have to be sealed for thirty minutes from smoke and fire. They know these flats aren't sealed."
His point is that Salix Homes doesn't know whether the flats are smoke and fire proof for thirty minutes because, according to his knowledge, the company's surveyors have never inspected the interiors of the flats…
…And the Fire Service has no control over the interiors of the flats, only the communal areas and the actual doors at the entrances to the individual flats - which have been found to be inadequate by Salix Homes' own fire risk assessments.
Meanwhile, if people do evacuate their flats, the fire assessments conclude that escape routes are compromised by inadequate fire doors, cabling holes that aren't `fire stopped' and other oversights.
"My basic question is that they know that these flats aren't fire retardant for half an hour, so why are they telling us to stay in our flats?" asks Jamie "At the same time if my flat is on fire I'm told to leave but the fire report highlights that, if I do leave and use the escape corridors, I will die of smoke inhalation because they are not safe.
"So basically what Salford City Council is telling us is that, if you stay you stand a good chance of dying, and if you leave you stand a good chance of dying" he adds "With Salix Homes it's always `manyana'… `We'll do it up some time in the next three years'. And funnily enough, that's what I was told three years ago."
Indeed, on the last fire risk assessment in 2012, Salix Homes had the safety work down to be done as part of the Pendleton PFI by Together Homes in the `financial year 2013/14'. That PFI deal still hasn't been signed off, which would have put the work back even further.
Now, following concerns raised by Jamie, Greater Manchester Fire and Rescue Service (GMFRS) has slapped an `action plan' on Salix Homes to comply with, at least some of the work, immediately.
"We issued an action plan with all the work that needs carrying out and when they have to do it" says Chris Roberts, Fire Protection Manager for Salford and Trafford "That is in effect now to get the compartmentation done. In the comments column [on the fire risk assessment] it was programmed to happen in the financial year 2013/14. Well we're not happy with that, so in the next couple of weeks all those breaches in common areas where cabling went through walls or doors is all going to be fire stopped…We do need to put self closing devices on the doors, which is being addressed. All the breaches will be upgraded."
Chris Roberts admits that the self closing devices on doors was a "priority", that the Greater Manchester Fire Service has stopped Salix delaying the work any longer, and that there were breaches of fire safety all over the block – but he refuses to criticise Salix Homes, and maintains that the towerblock is safe – because it's safe according to the standards set when Whitebeam was built in the 1960s or 70s…
"I'd be careful of using the word `criticism'" he says "because the building is constructed to a standard of the day. That it doesn't fit in with today's standards is almost irrelevant because we can't retrospectively get the changes."
Despite slapping the `action plan' on Salix Homes, Chris Roberts is convinced that residents will be safe in the event of a fire and that, even though the doors to people's flats don't meet standards, they will do…
"I'd like to give some assurance that, yeah they may not come up to today's standards, but they were built to the standard of the day" he explains "We've had a look at the conditions at a meeting with Mr Loftus, and I am confident that if they got a fire in that building and if they stay in their flat - if the fire is outside of it obviously - it will protect them until the fire brigade arrived to sort it out."
While the contentious fire doors may well protect flats from fire coming from the outside of the flat, the assertion of Jamie Loftus that smoke will come billowing in through the vents inside the flats is another matter.
"It gets a bit complicated because behind every person's front door stops becoming a fire service legislation issue and becomes a local authority housing issue under the act" says Chris Roberts "So we can't ask for any work to be done. But because he's brought it to our attention we want to make sure that, should you get a fire down below, that smoke isn't going to get into these vents and travel up to flats on the upper floors.
"In effect, any smoke in that shaft should go straight up and out of the shaft and not go into any flats" he explains "To make sure that is happening Salix is doing a camera survey to make sure there was no blockage and we're waiting for the results and recommendations."
Can he reassure residents that if there was a fire at Whitebeam Court, smoke won't come through the vents and suffocate them?
"I can't say it won't, because we're waiting for the results" he replies.
Does he not think that residents might be alarmed by this, and Salix Homes' blasé attitude to all the fire risks highlighted in its own reports over the last five years?
"Salix have got 1960s standards in the buildings but we put today's standards in their risk assessment and then highlighted a programme" he says "If for whatever reason they haven't completed to that timescale and have moved it on that is a matter for them to explain."
A spokesman for Salix Homes said: "The safety of our customers is the number one priority for Salix Homes and all Fire Risk Assessments (FRAs) have been carried out for our high-rise blocks in line with current legislation. A number of the recommendations identified through the FRA audit process have already been prioritised and addressed as part of an ongoing programme of works.
"We are currently in the process of delivering our £50 million investment programme that will further improve the fire safety at all of our high-rise blocks. To date improvement work has been completed on five blocks, with improvements to the remaining blocks planned over the next three years.
"Ahead of the extensive refurbishment works supported through the Government's PFI programme in Pendleton, our team has been making regular visits to Whitebeam Court to remove any potential fire hazards, such as litter and other items stored on landings, and ensure bin chutes are clean from flammable waste. We are also carrying out remedial work where necessary, as on all high rise blocks, ahead of the planned investment works."
"We will continue to work with Greater Manchester Fire Service and our customers to ensure they understand what they should do in the event of a fire."
Jamie Loftus showed the Salford Star around Whitebeam Court last week – a sliding door separating the rubbish chutes from communal areas, which the fire risk assessment stated was "clearly not a fire door", was still almost hanging off its hinges. Meanwhile, the block's bins, which were full and tinder dry, were clearly still stored right next to the building – the bins that, if set on fire, "would possibly escalate and quickly spread into the internal fabric the building".
And it took us ages to find the escape button to open the final exit on the block – the means of opening the door that the report stated "is inadequate and would be difficult to find and operate in the event of a fire."
The concerns of Jamie Loftus are incredibly relevant, following the Coroner's Inquest and Report released earlier this year into the fire at the Lakanal House high rise block in Southwark, London in 2009. The Coroner stated that the `stay put' policy was responsible for the deaths of six people in the block…
"The `stay put' policy is founded on an assumption of adequate imperforate compartmentation" the Metro Safety overview of the Coroner's Inquest noted "Evidence was heard at the inquest which indicated that fire brigades generally assume that compartmentation is intact. However, evidence also indicated that, particularly with older housing stock, compartmentation can be breached by maintenance, refurbishment work or modifications.
"In this regard, the jury criticised Southwark Council after finding that
`numerous opportunities' were missed to carry out fire safety checks inside the building when other intrusive building works were being carried out" it added "The Coroner also commented that `had a fire risk assessment been carried out at Lakanal House, it is possible that these features may have been highlighted for further investigation'."
Unlike Lakanal House, Whitebeam Court has had three fire risk assessments over the last five years, each pointing out breaches of `compartmentation' in the communal areas, amongst other breaches.
That a resident has had to fight to even get hold of these fire risk assessments is absolutely disgraceful. That Salix Homes has ignored most of the recommendations contained in the assessments for five years is even more disgraceful. And questions must be asked about the fire risks in other towerblocks in Salford.
The cost of putting the breaches right at Whitebeam Court was estimated at £139,000. Jamie Loftus wants to know if his life and others lives are not worth that…
Meanwhile, he will continue to harangue Salix Homes, Greater Manchester Fire and Rescue Service and Salford councillors until they can prove that his flat is safe. As an ex fire officer he certainly doesn't believe that to be the case right here, right now…
NB: According to Active Fire Management, Greater Manchester has the highest number of deaths from accidental house fires in the country.