Seanad debates

Thursday, 7 December 2017

10:30 am

Photo of Kevin HumphreysKevin Humphreys (Labour)
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The tragedy at Grenfell Tower was terrible, particularly in the context of the number of lives lost. We must learn lessons from what happened in London. There is a drive, especially under this Government's policy, towards higher-density and high-rise accommodation. In many instances, I do not disagree with that policy. However, we need to ensure that the necessary infrastructure is in place to allow a response to take place if a fire were to break out. The study that was conducted identified 262 multi-storey residential buildings that have similar forms of cladding to that used at Grenfell Tower. Approximately 90 of these are residential buildings. Do fire stations know whether such buildings are located in the areas for which they are responsible? This is basic knowledge they should possess.

The London Fire Brigade has changed its operating methods, that is, its pre-determined attendance. For the purposes of the pre-determined attendance, a high-rise is a building of six storeys or more or a height of over 18 m. The London Fire Brigade's pre-determined response to a fire in a high-rise called for four fire appliances, with one having high-reach capability.This has now been changed to five appliances, one of which must have high-reach capability. Irish fire brigades are still sending only three fire appliances - one with high-reach capability - to incidents. The position in this regard to needs to change quickly.

Following the fire, the London Fire Brigade ordered new aerial appliances. There are three aerial appliances in Dublin, nearly all of them second-hand. Dún Laoghaire, where high-rise development has become popular, has an aerial appliance. It is a second-hand appliance and, according to my information, it is currently off the road. If a fire were to break out at a six-storey building in the Dún Laoghaire area, it would have to be attended by one of the high-reach appliances from Tara Street or Donnybrook. That is not acceptable. If we are driving forward with the development of high-rise buildings, we must ensure that the emergency services and first responders have the equipment necessary to make the interventions that save lives. Such equipment would also protect the fire service personnel in attendance.

During the inspection relating to the study that was conducted, I understand that no fire authority actually entered the buildings themselves when they carried out the assessment of the cladding. They were actually drive-by assessments whereby the engineers viewed buildings from the outside and then moved on. When we know these buildings constitute a risk, we have a responsibility to ensure that the residents know that the internal responses in the building are up to standards. Until remedial work is carried out, these buildings obviously carry a higher risk and drive-by inspections are certainly not appropriate.

I am also concerned about planning. I am concentrating on the Dublin area because over 60% of all our high-rise buildings are concentrated there. From Balbriggan to Adamstown, there are real resource problems in the context of responding to fires should they break out. In Balbriggan, there is only one tender that could serve as a high-rise appliance within six minutes. Residents would have to wait for fire trucks to arrive from Phibsborough and elsewhere in order for a fire in a high-rise to be dealt with safely.

The other issue about which I am concerned relates to whether people should stay or go. This was one of the primary reasons for the high loss of life at Grenfell Tower. There was an instruction for high-rise buildings that people on upper storeys should stay rather than evacuate. Have we reassessed the position in this regard? In many cases, our building regulations refer to passive controls. In other words, the structure will contain the fire and allow the firefighters to deal with it safely, while residents or office workers could remain on the higher floors. Has there been a reappraisal of whether building users should stay or leave? Can the Minister of State provide an update on some of these matters?

Photo of John Paul PhelanJohn Paul Phelan (Carlow-Kilkenny, Fine Gael)
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As a result of the fact that he is taking parliamentary questions in the Dáil, the Minister for Housing, Planning and Local Government, Deputy Eoghan Murphy, cannot be here. I am taking this matter on his behalf.

On 27 June 2017, in response to the Grenfell Tower tragedy and in recognition of fears expressed in the context of fire safety, the Minister tasked his Department's national directorate for fire and emergency management with co-ordinating a high-level task force to lead a reappraisal of fire safety in Ireland. The task force was requested to oversee and report on a number of initial steps, and to urgently consider any potential life safety issues and appropriate responses. The work of the task force involves reviewing and reappraising existing arrangements and systems for fire safety and related issues which impact on fire safety in Ireland. The task force held its first meeting on 12 July and has met seven times since, most recently on 21 November. Drafting of an interim report continues, with a view to it being submitted to the Minister in early January. A further report setting out additional proposals for the Minister's consideration is proposed later next year.

As mentioned, in addition to establishing the task force, the Minister requested that a number of immediate initial actions be taken. Local authorities were asked to review their multi-storey social housing buildings to ensure that all early-warning systems, including fire alarm and detection systems, emergency lighting and means of escape are in place and fully functional. They were asked to revert to the Department with an assessment of current compliance with these lifesaving measures, as well as time-bound plans to address any issues identified. I understand that the Department has received responses from all local authorities, which have been working to address a small number of cases where issues were identified.

The fire authorities were also asked to identify buildings of more than six storeys or over 18 m in height that are fitted with external cladding systems. Where such buildings were identified, fire authorities were requested to consider using their powers to require the persons having control over the premises to carry out fire safety assessments. Specifically with regard to cladding on buildings, the task force set up a subgroup to consider fire safety issues arising from cladding systems, and to prepare guidance on the fire safety assessments required by fire authorities to assist building owners, their professional advisers and the fire services. The subgroup held its first meeting on 3 October and has met on four occasions since. On foot of this work, the preparation of the guidance is at an advanced stage. It is expected that this will be issued shortly. The Senator raised the question of whether building users should stay or go. That issue will most probably be dealt with in the guidance. I will inquire as to whether it has been included.

As already indicated, the task force expects to be in a position to submit an interim report to the Minister in January. It will then move on to the following phase of its work, with a view to completing a further report for the Minister's consideration later next year. Needless to say, in carrying out its work, the task force is taking into account information and developments arising in the aftermath of the Grenfell Tower tragedy. The Senator and the House can rest assured that the task force's work will continue to be accorded the highest priority by both the Minister and the Department's national directorate for fire and emergency management.

Photo of Kevin HumphreysKevin Humphreys (Labour)
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I thank the Minister of State. Maybe he could ask the officials to actually respond to the particular questions I raised in the first instance. I ask them to comment on the 91 residential buildings that were identified as having cladding similar to that used on Grenfell Tower. Is there a register in the fire stations so that the fire services actually know where those buildings are and do not attend calls blindly?

I refer again to the high-lift tenders in the Dublin area, which are mainly second-hand. As I outlined, one of those servicing a substantial area of Dublin is off the road as we speak this morning.Is funding being provided to ensure that the proper equipment is in place to respond to such incidents, especially within the Dublin area? This is applicable to Cork, Limerick and Galway as well where there are also high rise buildings.

Photo of Denis O'DonovanDenis O'Donovan (Fianna Fail)
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I thank the Minister of State, Deputy Phelan, and I am sure he will get the relevant information for Senator Humphreys.