The landlord for fire-hit Grenfell Tower did not prepare personal emergency evacuation plans (PEEPs) for vulnerable residents despite being aware of previous blazes involving evacuations, an inquiry has heard.
Teresa Brown, former director of housing at the Kensington and Chelsea Tenant Management Organisation (TMO), said they adopted a “stay put” approach for residents in the event of a fire which meant staff “weren’t expecting to evacuate”.
The TMO was the organisation appointed by the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea (RBKC) to run its entire council housing stock.
Giving evidence to a public inquiry into the 2017 Grenfell fire on Thursday, Mrs Brown was questioned over why disabled residents were not referred for PEEPs.
She said TMO residents in general housing were referred to the London Fire Brigade (LFB) for home fire safety visits, but could not remember the LFB subsequently raising with her department the need for a PEEP for vulnerable residents.
Mrs Brown, who was in her role from February 2014 until June 2018, said it was not her experience that other social housing landlords were preparing PEEPs.
Asked why by counsel to the inquiry Andrew Kinnier QC, she said: “I think it all comes back to… at the time the central advice that governed the way that ourselves and I believe many other housing organisations was based on the LGA (Local Government Association) guidance that stay put works.
“There are bits in that really do say it may be in certain circumstances impractical to evacuate.”
She added: “There’s much discussion on this now, it’s easy to look back in hindsight, but we were operating according to that guidance in a way that I think other organisations across the country were.”
Inquiry chairman Sir Martin Moore-Bick has previously said more lives could have been saved in the Grenfell fire had the controversial policy of “stay put” been abandoned sooner.
His initial October 2019 report highlighted that there were “no plans in place for evacuating Grenfell Tower should the need arise” and he recommended that owners and managers of high-rise residential buildings must prepare PEEPs for all residents whose ability to self-evacuate may be compromised.
On Thursday, Sir Martin suggested that it would always be possible that a resident with a disability would need to evacuate because of a fire in their own flat or if there was a dangerous blaze on their floor.
“So the need for evacuation wasn’t limited to a case in which there may be a fire affecting the whole building was there?” he asked.
Mrs Brown replied: “No… at no point did anybody suggested to me that we should be having PEEPS and be looking at them as part of our evacuation strategy or any strategy.”
The inquiry heard details of fires at Trellick Tower in April 2017 and Adair Tower in October 2015, both of which involved evacuations.
Mr Kinnier asked Mrs Brown whether the Adair Tower blaze did not prompt her to think there should be evacuation plans for vulnerable or disabled residents in TMO high-rise buildings.
Becoming tearful, Mrs Brown replied: “No, I’m afraid it didn’t because my experience there was that the fire brigade arrived and they led on that, they made the decision to move from a stay put to an evacuation policy… and it worked.”
She added: “When we did a review on that there was no recommendation from the LFB or from anybody else to have changed that, because it was very unusual.”
Mrs Brown also said the Trellick Tower fire had been contained within a flat and had “reinforced that compartmentalisation worked”.
Asked again if this gave her cause to “pause to think” whether PEEPS might have been required for vulnerable residents, Mrs Brown replied: “No, because nobody fed that back as an issue.”
In her written evidence, Mrs Brown said her role included managing the Estate Services team who carried out weekly and monthly health and safety inspections at their estates.
The inquiry has previously heard that a 2016 “supporting residents” policy procedure document did not reference PEEPs and evacuation and was told this was the responsibility of the TMO health and safety team.
Mrs Brown said it “wasn’t included in words” but the collection of a “bank of information” on residents could be “drawn on in an emergency situation”.
Mr Kinnear asked whether the lack of reference to evacuation was a “serious gap” in a policy used to identify and help safeguard vulnerable people.
Mrs Brown said: “We weren’t looking to evacuate our residents, we were looking to utilise the information in emergency situations to provide support,” adding this had been used in a “proactive way”.
The inquiry was shown a 2014 “vulnerability policy” draft which said the health and safety team had an “ad hoc and/or self-nominated” PEEP process.
Mrs Brown said she was not sure the TMO “did any publicity” on this and that she could not recall any resident asking for a PEEP.
Concluding her evidence, Mrs Brown said PEEPs were a “very complicated area of business”.
“Some thought really needs to be given about the guidance,” she said, adding: “It’s very complicated in terms of how you keep PEEPS up to date, how you implement them in evacuation situations.
“It’s obviously the subject of much debate, but it is something where there needs to be absolutely clarity on for everybody going forwards.”