Fire safety scandal (1): recently disclosed e-mail reveals industry expert’s warning that the LBWF specification for flat entrance doors on its estates prioritised ‘design’ over ‘compliance’, thus potentially ‘endangering lives’.

For ordinary Waltham Forest residents, how LBWF tenders and completes fire safety contracts is typically opaque, because so much is shielded from scrutiny by commercial confidentiality clauses and arms’ length transactions delivered through third parties, both outside the scope of the Freedom of Information Act.

However, an e-mail that has just surfaced provides a fascinating, and unexpectedly revealing, insight into the realities.

In October 2018, the technical director of a leading British fire safety equipment company, Mr. XX, approached Cllr. Alan Siggers about his unease regarding a large contract which LBWF was tendering for fire proofed flat entrance doors (FEDs).

The context was that Grenfell had greatly alarmed Whitehall and local councils alike; subsequent testing had shown that many existing FEDs were either problematic or actually defective; and the fire safety industry was struggling to come to terms with both its current predicament, and where the future lay.

The basic point that Mr. XX wanted to get over was that, from the viewpoint of an industry professional, LBWF’s tender appeared to be critically misguided.

Mr. XX made three main observations.

First, he stated of the specification in the tender documents that though ‘all the correct regulations and test standards are mentioned’, closer study told ‘a different story’.

In short, he believed, the specification seemed to have been led ‘from a design…as opposed to compliance angle’.

 Such an ordering of priorities, he continued, was ‘unfortunately…quite common’, but nevertheless completely wrong, in that ‘[the] designer wants the building to look a certain way and unbeknown to them, are actually endangering lives’.

Second, Mr. XX was concerned about certification.

He reported that, on the basis of his inquiries, ‘With regard to the specification requested…there are no fire doors on the market that have a current test certificate from a third party test house’.

This introduced difficulties. Every basic model of fire door could be configured for installation in various different ways – for example, hung using a particular type of hinge or provided with a particular type of letter box. But because such ironmongery impacted on overall fire resistance, each individual configuration required its own dedicated test to achieve certification.

So, while those responding to LBWF’s tender no doubt would tout their FEDs as certified, it was likely that this had been gained on the basis of a configuration unlike that in LBWF’s specification, meaning that, if these FEDs were then installed in local social housing, a qualified inspector would fail them.

Mr. XX left the knock-on implications and temptations hanging, though they were clear enough to anyone who had dealings with the industry.

Mr. XX’s final observation was as follows:

‘I would also very much like [to] question the council on their choice of composite fire doors, as you know within the last 3 months nearly all composite door tests have been pulled by manufacturers as the tests to the composite doors where [sic] proved to be flawed’.

All in all, Mr. XX’s e-mail is damning. It suggests that, despite everything that had happened after the Grenfell catastrophe 14 months earlier, LBFW was still placing nowhere near enough emphasis on fire safety, and moreover seemed hazy about the FEDs market as a whole, not least its current controversies.

As to the epilogue, it is known that, shortly after receiving Mr. XX’s e-mail, Cllr. Siggers drew it to the attention of two senior LBWF officers, Director of Governance and Law, Mark Hynes, and Strategic Director Economic Growth and Housing Delivery, Stewart Murray.

What action the latter then took is so far unclear.

But questions have been asked, and may tease out at least some of the truth shortly.

Related Posts

Statement submitted to tonight’s full Council meeting on the fire safety scandal in Waltham Forest

Learning the lessons of Grenfell…or maybe not: LBWF’s 2017-18 flat entrance door update programme at Northwood Tower, Goddarts House, and other sheltered housing blocks