Fire! Should you stay put or evacuate?

Is there an evacuation plan for your block? If you don’t know – find out.

Would you stay put if a fire broke out in your block? As the first phase report of the Grenfell Tower Inquiry is published, the “flawed” stay put policy used on the night of the devastating fire is now under intense scrutiny.

‘Stay put’ is the standard advice given to residents in blocks of flats who are not directly affected when a fire breaks out. They are told to stay in their homes with the windows and doors shut. The expectation is that the construction of the building and fire doors leading onto communal areas will protect people from the spread of fire long enough for the fire service to attend if necessary and put out the fire. At Grenfell Tower, this policy proved utterly inadequate. It is now judged to have led to unnecessary loss of life. As a result, the government is working on a “full and detailed examination” of the stay put/evacuation strategy for fire in high-rise blocks.

Housing Secretary Robert Jenrick told the Housing, Communities and Local Government Select Committee yesterday that, while expert consensus is that stay put is “valid” for most tall blocks, the government is now reviewing the advice.

As a layperson it is hard to understand the thinking behind stay put: surely it makes more sense to get out of the building as quickly as possible? So here’s the explanation. The thinking behind it is twofold:

  • First, the fire service needs unfettered access to hallways and stairs to get up and down to evacuate the building in priority order. This would be hampered by everyone trying to evacuate at the same time – particularly in buildings with only one stairway.
  • Second, opening and closing doors increases air circulation which not only accelerates combustion and the spread of smoke but panicking residents rarely stop to close their door behind them. This leaves other parts of the building exposed to the fire.

A stay put policy is intended to protect residents (who can be safely rescued some other way) from smoke inhalation, as smoke kills long before the heat from a fire.  But the Grenfell Inquiry judge is now calling for evacuation plans to be developed for all high-rise buildings. Ringley Group managing director Maryanne Bowring agrees. She does not believe stay put is the right policy for all high-rise blocks.

Her view is this. “If there is no misting system or sprinklers in your building and you are above the height of a ladder (normally assumed to be six storeys) or if the fire is below your home in a tower, or if the facade of a building is burning, or if the building was not constructed in the last 10 or so years, I would say you must get out.

She adds: “You can have as many fire risk assessments as you like, you can have as much fire detection equipment as you like, but there should now be an acceptance that any fire policy is made up of component parts, one of which can fail, even if serviced or checked yesterday – so visual and common sense judgements must be made”.

We all feel for those in the fire and call centres that night who were under orders to keep telling residents to stay put, when they could watch the fire at Grenfell Tower on mobile phones or in person and see that the building was engulfed by flames.

Dame Judith Hackitt, who carried out a review of fire safety and building regulations for the government post-Grenfell, will now advise ministers on the format of a new building safety regulator. The aim is for a fundamental shift in the design, construction and management of tall buildings with the focus firmly on safety. This is badly needed for the long-term wellbeing of residents and we await the outcome with interest.