London firefighters better prepared than ever for another Grenfell

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High-rise training for London firefighters has been delayed because of coronavirus – but they are better prepared than ever for another fire like Grenfell, the brigade chief has said.

Commissioner Andy Roe said Covid-19 has caused “inevitable” hold ups to reforms at the fire service, because mass face-to-face training has stopped.

But plans are still “progressing with energy” – and the brigade is now looking into virtual reality training, he said.

It comes on the third anniversary of Grenfell – 72 residents lost their lives when fire spread rapidly through the North Kensington tower block on 14 June 2017.

London’s fire service was strongly criticised for its handling of the fire – the report on phase one of the inquiry said fewer people would have died if fire fighters had acted differently.

Mr Roe was appointed fire chief in January this year, after former boss Dany Cotton stepped down earlier than planned under pressure from Grenfell survivors.

Later that month, the Local Democracy Service revealed most fire fighters have had no face-to-face training on high rise fires since the devastating blaze.

But Mr Roe – who scrapped ‘stay put’ advice at Grenfell minutes after arriving on the scene – said the brigade is better prepared than ever for a similar disaster.

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“If one of my incident commanders arrived at a high rise incident tonight, they will already be in a better place to take earlier decisions around the state of that building and what they might need to do in response to it,” he told the London Assembly fire, resilience and emergency planning committee.

Mr Roe admitted some work has been “inevitably impacted” by the pandemic – with training for new high rise policies facing the “most significant” hold ups.

Initial online courses on high rise fires, evacuation and fire survival are currently being developed, and will be rolled out between July and December this year.

But further training will rely on large-scale face-to-face exercises, so delays have been unavoidable, the fire chief said – though some in-person exercises will restart “from this week”.

Mr Roe also wants to develop an “absolutely world-leading” urban fire fighting course in future, which could see all fire fighters complete a residential programme of training top ups every two to three years.

And the brigade is also investigating how virtual simulations could be used to build on large scale training.

“Exercises and testing are very expensive,” Assistant Fire Commissioner Richard Mills explained.

“Virtual reality will allow people to test in real extreme environments for major incidents – counter-terrorism environments, anything that is unusual – so we’re very keen to explore that.

“Not only will it allow us to be more cost effective in how we deliver our training but it will allow consistency.”

Mr Roe said delays to training that will fill gaps highlighted in the Grenfell fire report are “obviously causing some anxiety” because of the number of high-risk buildings in London.

“The anniversary this weekend is the starkest reminder that whole sections of London communities were let down – and I will not be satisfied until that change is delivered,” he said.

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