Grenfell Tower Inquiry: Harrowing 999 calls show ‘blunt and callous’ London Fire Brigade operators

QC Leslie Thomas told the inquiry that operators lacked adequate training and equipment to advise people inside the tower on the night of the fire.

Harrowing 999 calls during the Grenfell Tower fire show the London Fire Brigade (LFB) was not prepared to deal with the tragedy, a lawyer claims.

Leslie Thomas QC told the inquiry that operators lacked adequate training and equipment to advise people inside the tower on the night of the fire.

Professor Thomas, representing the bereaved, survivors and residents, said operators responses to scared residents were “blunt and callous”.

He read out excerpts of calls made by residents as they pleaded for operators to send help.

The QC said many residents were advised stay inside the building, despite smoke already entering their flats and then at the last minute told to cover themselves in wet towels and get out.

Prof Thomas quoted one call made by a 12-year-old survivor who fled the building with his mum and younger brother.

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He told the inquiry the operator did not realise they were talking to a child and advised the family to remain in their flat, assuring them that firefighters would rescue them.

Firefighters inspect the blackened interior of Grenfell Tower on June 15, 2017. Credit: Dan Kitwood/Getty Images

As the fire got worse, they then told the family to put wet towels over their mouths and leave the flat.

The boy told the operator: “Smoke coming in, we’ve smelt it. Fireballs hitting the widow, it’s really scary.

“My mother has asthma and a heart problem. We’re going to die.

“The corridor’s full of smoke. Do we just die? This is my final words.”

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ProfThomas said operators failed to give special advice to children and vulnerable adults, including pregnant women and people with mobility issues.

He also explained how a resident who fled the tower repeatedly urged her brother’s family who also lived there to leave on the night of the fire.

But operators told the family of five to stay put for around an hour before telling them to try and escape. All five members of the family died in the fire.

Prof Thomas said: “Having been told finally to self-evacuate, the family like so many others are left to fend for themselves and work out their own evacuation strategy.

“In their final calls the desperation and the fear is tangible. The response of the operator is blunt and callous.”

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

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Prof Thomas also said operators failed to communicate what was happening with other teams and lacked televisions in operator rooms, which would have been key because access to live news coverage of the fire would have shown them how quickly it was spreading.

“There were missed opportunities to assess fire and smoke spread, the conditions in the flats and the needs of the occupants.

“There was an absolute lack of awareness of the needs of the vulnerable and persons with physical and mobility difficulties and mental impairment.”

Martin Seaward, representing the Fire Brigade’s Union, said control rooms were understaffed on the night of the fire.

He added: “They were swamped and they did their best.

“It’s unfair that they should have to bear personal criticism for this inquiry for shortcomings caused by the underlying, systemic failings.

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“Yes it was harrowing but the control room operators were on one end of that harrowing call. They had to cope with it as well and they had to try and be professional.

“There is an obvious disconnect between government policy and imposing austerity cuts on the LFB leading to staff reductions and station closures.”

Yvette Williams, left, at the opening day of the Grenfell Tower inquiry. Credit: BEN STANSALL/AFP via Getty Images

Stephen Walsh, QC for the London Fire Commissioner, said the brigade has learned many lessons since the Grenfell Tower fire.

He continued: “There are certain defining moments in time, often marked by significant and sometimes catastrophic events.

“We should and do prompt very deep and far-reaching introspection.

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“The Grenfell Tower fire was a shattering example of such a moment.

“Indeed the most consequential for fire and rescue services and the residents of high rise buildings since at least the Second World War.

“The London Fire Commissioner is strongly of the view that matters of operational policy, training, information gathering, and the use of equipment.. will benefit equally in terms of efficiency and effectiveness.

“There is a strong recognition that fire safety by contrast with operational fire fighting is the bedrock of the brigade’s work and forms the foundation of the safety of Londoners.”

He asked the inquiry on October 28: “How many infernos will there be, how many lives lost, homes lost, families destroyed, before there is meaningful change?

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“Their final exchanges with the control room and the advice received lay bare the threads of the institutional failings of the LFB which was evident in the control room and incident ground.

“The outcomes of our clients’ loved ones who sadly died were invariably affected by the LFB’s inadequate high rise policy and training and the control room failures.

“There was no system of sharing information taken from multiple callers in the same location or flat.”