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19 June 2020updated 09 Sep 2021 2:49pm

I was a firefighter at Grenfell – why do I still see towers in flammable cladding across Britain?

Three years on from the Grenfell Tower disaster, two thirds of high-rise buildings with the same sort of flammable cladding still haven’t had it replaced.

By Jon Wharnsby

Three years ago, I was called to a fire in Grenfell Tower in North Kensington along with my watch. By the time we arrived, my colleagues had already been desperately working for over an hour to save as many lives as possible: 72 lives were lost, 72 too many.

In the time that has passed, there has been little action, by government or industry, to prevent a tragedy like the one at Grenfell Tower happening again.

Half a million residents up and down the country are still trapped in potentially lethal flats. When we firefighters are called to a block with flammable cladding, the fear of the imprisoned residents is apparent. With homes rendered worthless due to the flammable materials, they are unable to sell.
Terrified, many of them have taken on 24-hour “waking watches”, patrolling their buildings in case a fire a breaks out while residents sleep.

Three years have passed. Three years is 1,095 days or 26,304 hours or 1,576,800 minutes or 94,608,000 seconds. In just one second, with the stroke of a pen, the government could mandate the removal of all flammable cladding, requisitioning buildings from owners who refuse.
Instead, we have had fires in London, Bolton, Crewe and Belfast involving major fire safety defects. The next one could happen tomorrow.

One would think that, after a disaster like Grenfell, cuts to the fire and rescue service would be a thing of the past. But, in the time since the fire, we have seen further swathing and potentially lethal cuts to many services. There still exists a postcode lottery of fire cover, with some brigades still woefully under prepared for the next fire like Grenfell.With every passing second there is a real danger that another fire could break out in one of the 23,000 homes in blocks covered in highly flammable ACM cladding, similar to the cladding wrapped around the Grenfell Tower.

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Two thirds of high-rise buildings with the same sort of cladding still haven’t had it replaced, according to an investigation by the National Audit Office (NAO) released today. And while the government has been focusing on buildings 18 metres and over, the most dangerous forms of ACM cladding and insulation are unsafe on buildings of any height – and the NAO finds there are around 85,000 buildings between 11 and 18 metres whose cladding systems have not yet been analysed.

Like many firefighters who attended Grenfell, I am often drawn back to the events of that night. Barely a day goes by when I don’t think of the residents, and of my colleagues, involved.

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It’s important to remember: this wasn’t the only Grenfell Tower fire. Many fires occurred in that tower in its lifetime of over 30 years. It will be, however, the fire after it had been clad that we will forever remember.But I consider myself lucky. I am not haunted by the memory of loved ones lost, or tormented by daily flashbacks, night terrors, depression, or any one of the many ways in which the horror of that night and its consequences plague those involved.Some things cannot be unseen, some memories cannot be forgotten and no lives can ever be replaced.

As I sit and hold my daughters, I think of those who have lost everything important in the world. As I do, I’m briefly consumed by an empty and cold terror. When it passes, I notice I have been gripping my children tighter and tighter. Just moments contemplating the pain residents have endured daily for three years is unbearable.

The Grenfell tragedy encompassed for me the failing of society: a damning indictment of those charged with our safety. At every turn, lower costs and bigger profits were chosen over the safety of residents.

As I watched testimony from those responsible for undermining almost every fire safety precaution at Grenfell, I became consumed by anger. It seemed that every opportunity to prevent this tragedy from happening, to prevent anyone from having to lose a loved one, to prevent anyone from being made to choose whom to save and whom to leave, was missed. All that pain and all that anguish, immeasurable in quantity, could have been avoided had even one of those opportunities been taken.

We firefighters gave our evidence. But corporate participants extorted an immunity from prosecution for their evidence, limiting the chances of justice for the families of those killed.

Impossible though it is, I try to block out the smells, sights and sensations of the fire on 14 June 2017; the memories of peoples’ anguish and trauma. I try to ignore the frustration of the lack of justice and action.

Instead, I attempt to focus on those things that inspire me. I focus on the bravery and selflessness of my colleagues that night; on the love and support the community in Grenfell and the surrounding area gave each other in the wake of the disaster; on the resilience, fortitude and empathy that the community has shown.

We must not forget this tragedy or those lost in it. And we must never forget it could have been avoided. We must always stand with the community in their fight for justice. We must harness the pain and anger to effect real change in our society. And, as a firefighter, I know we must take action to prevent it happening again.

As the inquiry progresses ever slowly, frustration builds. Justice delayed is justice denied, as citizens we must know that those who are culpable can be held accountable.

If our society and democracy are built on the foundations of justice for all, then Grenfell will either prove that as a truth, or expose it as lies.

Jon Wharnsby is Grenfell Community Liaison for the Fire Brigades Union (FBU) and is the union’s North East London secretary. He was a firefighter at Grenfell.