On Wednesday probably around one hundred human lives (they still haven’t said how many) were sacrificed on the altar of English extreme inequality. The religious analogy is appropriate: the idea that there is nonatural or moral limit to the potential disparity between decadent wealth and grim poverty is tantamount to a tenet of a faith which, apart perhaps from a brief moment around the end of World War II, has always been held to fast by the British state irrespective of its political colour. The richest council in the country, gluttoned on surplus revenues extracted from global billionaires stashing their mysterious assets in empty real estate in a city facing a perpetual housing crisis, chose to save money by using flammable materials in a Brutalist tower block inhabited by poor people including ethnic minorities and refugees. Theresa May’s Tories provide a convenient proxy for the nation’s collective culpability.
I did a day’s training as a fire warden many years ago. For most of the day we did theory, and the Grenfell Tower disaster has reminded me of the trainer’s sudden interjection, almost as an aside, that sprinklers were the one thing which will almost certainly stop you dying in a fire. After the theory, interspersed with many tea breaks (such is the life of a firefighter in between emergencies) we were rewarded with some controlled fire-dousing using ‘different extinguishing medias’ (see below). He brought us to the empty yard of 1 Queen Anne’s Gate, which had just been vacated by the Home Office pending arrival of builders to transform it into the headquarters of the expanding Department of Constitutional Affairs, the precursor to the Ministry of Justice.
Here are my notes from the day.
‘Backdraft’ – if you introduce oxygen to a room on fire, it becomes ‘entrained’ and combusts
‘Flashover’ – this occurs between 650º and 1000º. It’s only 3 minutes to pyrolysis.
‘Small incendiary device’ – a cigarette lighter
‘Different extinguishing medias” – fire extinguishers, blankets etc.
Main cause of fire in the work place
Arson – 46% of all fires. The English are particularly partial to this cause of fire. Culprits range from pyromaniacs, those doing it to make phony insurance claims, disgruntled employees, those suffering from hero-syndrome, to casual fire-setting chavs.
Electrical defects – 40%
‘Heat producing appliances’
Fire prevention tactics
Ensure premises are secure
Good housekeeping: a big pile of paper is an ‘opportunity’
“Is your building sprinklered? There has never been a fire death in a sprinklered building”
“People get over zealous with fire door stickers: they appear stuck on places which aren’t even doors.”
About the trainer
Wizened old fire hand. Nothing in the world of flames could surprise him – he has seen it all before. His North London voice bounces around with ‘facts n’ figures’ to instruct and entertain. To pack out the day’s training, he makes sure there are plenty of tea breaks. He speaks with sincere affection about tools and devices to combat the fiery menace. With a roll of the eyes and a wry smile, he refers to people who ‘helpfully prop open fire doors with extinguishers’
“We’ve just our ‘owse done” said a crumpled eastender from the Courts Service. Then she went into a bit of a coughing fit.
“You alright?”, the trainer, out of amused obligation, inquired.
Recovering, she slapped the shoulder of the hitherto silent young man sitting next to her, apparently a colleague. “That’s your fault!”
“Don’t you start again!” he replied.
“We’ll have to give you an abdominal thrust”, interjected a Liverpuldlian member of the class.
“I bet you can’t wait to get your hands on one of those extinguishers,” added the trainer.
“Shut up you tart.”
Avoiding death by fire, like avoiding human crushes at a football stadium, is not complicated if you can be bothered. After a year of rabid, McCarthyite vengefulness directed at the Other, the pendulum of public opinion is shifting back towards compassion and accountability, but it has come at an appalling cost.