Dismore raises safety concerns over high rise firefighting

At today’s London Assembly Mayor’s Question Time, Andrew Dismore AM, Labour London Assembly member for Barnet and Camden raised safety concerns over high rise firefighting techniques, about to be brought in by the London Fire Brigade, known as PN633 (Video here)

Mr Dismore asked the Mayor for an update on the design and implementation of LFB’s PN633. This policy introduces a major change, by instructing firefighters to go above the firefighting bridgehead without turning on their breathing apparatus (BA) sets until they are higher up in the building. This is controversial because it can expose firefighters to noxious fumes and smoke. It also poses risks with timing a safe exit from the building within the duration of a BA set’s air supply.

Mr Dismore said:

‘Sending firefighters above the bridgehead, into potentially toxic smoke and fume filled environments before starting their breathing apparatus departs from years of safe practice guidance. As PN 633 states, ‘This is an extremely high risk activity’. The Fire Brigades Union have suggested alternatives like altering the flow rate on breathing apparatus sets, making greater use of extended duration BA, and testing pure oxygen sets. Can you reassure us that all possible options are being considered in the development of new high-rise firefighting procedures? And what do you say to firefighters who will have to carry out this new policy?

‘Of course, the real answer is  to ensure that dangerous cladding ACM or otherwise, is removed from all tall buildings, and indeed all buildings where vulnerable people may be such as care homes, so that firefighters do not have to risk their health and  their lives tackling fires in  and evacuating people  from  such dangerous places. The Commons Public Accounts Committee yesterday published a scathing report on the Government’s appallingly slow progress in remediating dangerous cladding and in failing to support residents who live in them, many of whom face huge bills. What can you do to encourage swifter action, to make such homes safe for the Londoners who live in them?

The Mayor thanked firefighters for their work, and said he had a duty to keep them safe, through providing them with the right training and kit. The Fire Commissioner has taken all the issues raised on board and is working with partners such as the FBU to demonstrate that the brigade is taking this seriously. He added that the “stay put” advice cannot always be applied with buildings that are at risk, as was the case at Grenfell. For this reason, he considered it important to get the work done to remediate dangerous buildings completed as soon as possible. He is working with the Government to put pressure on building owners, alongside the Grenfell community, regular Londoners and firefighters.


Notes for editors

High rise firefighting – the need for change

The Grenfell Tower Inquiry Phase 1 Report concluded that though the existing PN633 “envisages that evacuation of a high-rise residential building may be necessary and suggests that during familiarisation visits officers consider evacuation arrangements”, LFB did not in fact act on this.

This meant that officers were unprepared for the possibility of building failure and subsequent firefighting operations including a change from ‘Stay Put’ to ‘Simultaneous Evacuation ‘advice. Command and control of firefighting operations in the compromised high-rise environment were also inadequate.[1]

Problems with the new PN633

LFB’s draft policy involves a major change by instructing firefighters to go above the bridgehead without turning on their breathing apparatus sets. This is controversial because it exposes firefighters to noxious fumes and smoke. It also poses risks with timing exit from the building with BA duration.

An extract from the new PN633 states:

5.27 There may be a risk of catastrophic failure of compartmentation in a building where the furthest parts of the building from the bridgehead cannot be successfully reached within the working duration of a BA set.

5.28 In this case, the IC may commit teams beyond the bridgehead wearing BA sets that have not been started up. This is an extremely high risk activity which must only be implemented when the benefits are proportionate and the following control measures are put in place in addition to the control measures for BA teams above the bridgehead with their sets started up.

(a) Teams must be committed through entry control wearing BA not started up and not under air.

(b) Their tally must be inserted into the BA entry control board and telemetry between the BA set and entry control board established. This will display to the ECO the time elapsed since the team were committed and give an indication of when/if they go under air by changing to a time of whistle display.

5.29  Teams committed through entry control wearing BA not started up and not under air should not force entry into flats unless they are confident that there is no fire spread into these flats.

LFB reviewed PN633 before the coronavirus pandemic and initially planned to implement it in July 2020. A large-scale drill was held in February 2020 to test PN633 and the new fire survival guidance call policy, PN790.

The pause on in-person training has delayed implementation, with the policy now expected to go live in late 2020 or early 2021. Computer based training commenced from 2 September 2020. LFB plan to put all firefighters through a week’s urban firefighting course, to be running by the end of 2021, to train for the new policies.

The FBU have proposed other options such as greater use of Extended Duration BA. In correspondence, LFB say they are looking at earlier EDBA attendance where cladding fire is indicated, clarifying the meaning of the “when benefits are proportionate” proviso in the policy, and commissioning research on the physiological effects on firefighters of longer in the fire environment.



[1] GTI phase 1 report overview, Grenfell Tower Inquiry, October 2019 https://assets.grenfelltowerinquiry.org.uk/GTI%20-%20Phase%201%20report%20Executive%20Summary.pdf