Aldgate East fire: Residents say no fire alarms were installed after previous blazes despite complaints

The Relay Building - which caught fire on Monday - has no communal fire alarms due to its ‘stay put’ policy, despite warnings from residents about previous blazes.

Terrified residents of the Aldgate East tower block which dramatically caught fire on Monday have told of how their calls to install communal fire alarms after previous blazes were refused.

Flames ripped through flats on the 17th floor of the building and left several homes gutted, with shocked onlookers fearing they could have been witnessing another tragedy like Grenfell Tower.

Panes of glass fell 17 storeys to the street as the fire raged and surrounding roads were closed.

Dozens had to be evacuated from the block despite the building having the same ‘stay put’ policy as Grenfell, with some residents only finding out about the blaze on WhatsApp.

The building, which has a controversial so-called ‘poor door’ for residents living in social housing, has no fire alarms in communal areas, as official government guidance says the devices are “unnecessary and undesirable” in buildings designed for ‘stay put’ policies.

But a fire safety expert has warned this is “contentious”, calling it a “misplaced belief” that fire alarms lead to overcrowded staircases in residential buildings during evacuations.

Now Aldgate East residents have warned of a repeat of the tragic Grenfell Tower disaster of June 2017, which saw 72 people killed, and are calling for communal area fire alarms to be fitted.

They told LondonWorld there have been three previous fires, and only discovered one blaze when they opened their flat door to find flames and smoke outside.

Charred rubble at the Relay Building. Photo: LondonWorld

And they have warned the housing association, Network Homes, of safety issues for years.

  • At least three small fires have taken place in the past year at the Relay Building;
  • ‘Stay put’ evacuation policies are in place, meaning residents stay in their flats;
  • Residents have warned Network Homes about the lack of smoke alarms;
  • And there are fears fire can easily spread between floors, as in the blaze on Monday.

Mustaque Ahmed, who lives in the building, said he heard about the fire via a text message.

“My neighbour sent me a message in the [WhatsApp] group – it said we had to come out of the flat because there was a fire,” he said.

“I went to the front and saw the huge flames… none of the fire alarms went off.”

Mustaque Ahmed who lives in the Relay Building. Credit: Alastair Lockhart

While neighbour Helen Nteneta said she knocked on her neighbours doors to alert them.

She said: “I called everyone - and said ‘there’s a fire, get out’. But there were no alarms.

“I said ‘thank you God it’s the day, because if it was the night someone could be dead’.”

Fellow resident Yosef added: “I didn’t know there was a fire until somebody knocked on my door. If there are no alarms there should be an alternative way to let us know there’s a fire.”

And Rachel, who is staying in the building visiting London for her 50th birthday, said: “My guardian angel, the boy next door, started screaming and told me to leave.

“It’s a stay put policy – I have never heard of anything like that in my life.

“If I hadn’t seen that lad I would have just shut my door and gone to bed. The alarms should be on all floors, surely.”

Resident Rana Uddin, 42, who lives on the seventh floor of the building with her husband and three of her five children, said her youngest daughter was “shaken and traumatised” and her family were now seeking to be rehoused.

Mrs Uddin told LondonWorld: “Everyone is very angry. No one is taking it seriously.

“We can see Grenfell Tower all over again - it’s basically happening. This time we were lucky but who knows, we may not be lucky next time.”

Rana Uddin wants the housing association to install fire alarms. Photo: LondonWorld

She said Network Homes, who manage the affordable housing segment of the block, known as Houblon Apartments, where she and her family live, have not installed fire alarms.

The blaze yesterday began on the 16th floor, she said, before spreading to the floor above and damaging the two floors above that.

“There is no fire alarm in the communal hallway,” she said.

“They say there is no need for it because apparently the fire can’t spread to our properties, as the structure has been designed for fire not to spread.

“But Monday’s incident tells a different story.”

She added: “Network Homes say they can assure us if there was a fire in the hallway, that fire won’t spread to my property.

“This is just way beyond a joke. You really can’t guarantee that - when the fire yesterday affected the floor above and two more floors above that.”

Official Home Office guidance on fire safety policy in purpose-built blocks of flats says fire alarms are “unnecessary and undesirable” in buildings designed for stay put policies.

And a fire risk assessment published in 2021 reveals that the building has a “moderate” fire risk, with “moderate harm” to “life safety” in the event of a blaze.

The document, produced for Network Homes, states: “The premises are purpose-built and from the building features a stay put policy is presumed and is appropriate.”

But ex-firefighter and fire safety expert Phil Murphy, who is an author, researcher and expert witness and a registered fire protection engineers society member, said the issue was “very contentious”.

He told LondonWorld: “There’s a misplaced belief if you put a fire alarm in a residential block of flats, everyone will evacuate at once, but that’s a workplace behaviour.

“In residential buildings it happens far more slowly. There’s this misconception that they might cause more problems than they solve.”

He added: “To suggest that the design [means fire] could not spread from one floor to another is a fallacy.

“Building regulations accept that fire will go out of one window and into the flat above. They do know that fire spreads from one floor to another and they tolerate it to some degree.”

Fire and smoke damage in Rana’s hallway from a previous blaze, which has not been repainted. Photo: LondonWorld

The 22-storey Relay Building, hosts offices up to the sixth floor, with social housing from the seventh to 11th floor, and private residential flats above.

But Mrs Uddin said there had been other fires in the building - including a blaze on her floor which she only found out about when her child opened the door to the corridor to see flames.

An electricity cupboard in the communal hallway caught fire in November 2021. No fire alarm went off.

“My child opened the door and the hallway was filled with gusting flames and black smoke,” she said.

“We managed to escape but these cupboards are next to every property. If it was my cupboard, I would have no way out.”

A photo of the Aldgate East fire from the opposite building. Credit: Gabriel Petrovici

Network Homes confirmed a “small fire” broke out on November 6, in the communal area on the seventh floor “due to an electrical fault” but it was “safely contained”.

While the fire brigade was called to the block on at least two other occasions in the last year.

She said: “Once, we heard a lot of commotion outside. We were still told to stay in the building.

“Network Homes told us it’s perfectly fine and something small caught on fire. Imagine it broke out at 3am - no one would know? I’d definitely be trapped.

“Would they take any responsibility if something like that happened to my family?

“No matter how safe they say it is, it’s obviously not safe enough.”

The Aldgate East fire. Credit: CatAldgate

UK Cladding Action group co-founder Ritu Saha, who has been supporting residents, said: “The bereaved and survivors of Grenfell have said that Grenfell Two is ‘in the post’.

“The residents are obviously very concerned that their fears about fire safety have been ignored all this time - leading to this terrifying fire.

“We talk about the cladding scandal, but this has morphed into a whole building safety crisis.

“The government has literally turned a blind eye towards that. The question of who pays has become more important than the lives of people living in these buildings.”

Ms Saha stressed that the Relay Building did not appear to be as much of a fire risk as Grenfell was, but added: “If I had been a resident I would be completely terrified as well.”

While Aldgate community activist Cat England said: “It’s so important to understand how we’ve been swallowed by gentrification.

“If we’re not fighting to not put up another glass building, that’s going to block out our kids’ light in their playground, we’re battling to make sure we have sprinklers in our buildings.

“My friends live there, my son’s friends live there, and my daughter’s best friend lives there.”

Grenfell Tower shortly after the fire had gutted it. Credit: TOLGA AKMEN/AFP via Getty Images

Cat, 38, who lives in a neighbouring building, said the community has spoken to the Justice for Grenfell Campaign.

She said: “It all links together. When is it going to be another Grenfell? We can’t take those risks any more.”

The London Fire Brigade (LFB) said it was still working to find out what had caused the fire.

They said it seemed the stay put policy went as planned but it would investigate this too.

A spokesperson for the LFB said: “The investigation into the cause and all aspects of the fire is on-going.

“As with all instances, we will look at fire safety arrangements as part of our investigation.

“The building had a stay-put policy in place, so we wouldn’t expect it to have communal alarms unless there was a change to the policy, as alarms sounding could initiate evacuation and send people into the communal areas.”

The aftermath of the fire in Aldgate East. Credit: Gabriel Petrovici

Network Homes chief executive, Helen Evans, said: “We are thankful that everyone is safe following the fire on the 17th floor of the Crawford Building in Whitechapel, on Monday.

“The fire that took place yesterday did not affect any of our residents’ flats directly although three have had some water damage to their homes. All other residents were able to return to their homes last night.

“Our team were onsite during the incident and into Monday evening, and have been onsite meeting residents to offer further support. We are also writing to all residents with an update today and will continue to offer support where needed.

“Network Homes is not the freeholder of this building.  We are the head lessee of 70 flats across floors 7-11 which are a mix of tenanted, shared ownership and leasehold homes.

“Responsibility for the building and balconies is with the freeholder.  The building has a stay put policy and like all other residential buildings with a stay put policy, under current fire regulations it does not have a fire alarm.

“We have been and remain in active discussion with the freeholder’s managing agents about fire safety measures including removal and replacement of timber balcony decking.”

Fire damage in Rana’s hallway from a previous blaze, which has not been repainted. Photo: LondonWorld

A spokesperson for Redrow, who built the block and sold the freehold in 2014 to AG Commercial St, said: “We’re aware of the fire that took place at The Relay Building earlier this week. We understand that investigations are ongoing and will await the findings.

“The building was constructed under a design and build contract in 2012 and the freehold was sold in 2014. Our thoughts remain with anyone affected by this incident.”

The current owner of the building is thought to be London Relay Ltd.

Rendall & Rittner, who manages the Crawford Building, or the private apartments element of the block - where the fire broke out - declined to comment.

John D Wood, who manages the estate and structures, did not respond to a request for comment.

The Home Office did not respond to a request for comment.

Additional reporting from Alastair Lockhart