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The recent Manchester flats fire story reported here by the BBC is a reminder of the importance of maintaining fire safety standards. Thankfully, no-one was killed and it doesn’t appear that exterior cladding – one of the contributing factors to the Grenfell fire – is to blame.

However, news reports in the days after the fire have raised concerns about the wooden balconies on the outside of the flats. Did they act as an accelerant in Manchester like the cladding at Grenfell? Are they a new fire safety concern that we must address? And how many blocks around the UK have this type of balcony?

What do we know about the Manchester flats fire?

The Manchester fire started during the afternoon of Saturday 30 December 2017 on the ninth floor of a 12-storey apartment block. The flats are located near to the city’s Arndale shopping centre. Authorities are yet to announce a possible cause so it’s pointless to speculate, but a full investigation will follow. What we do know, however, is that the fire spread to three other floors before firefighters got the blaze under control. In total, four properties were affected and the local council has rehoused several residents.

Thankfully, no-one was seriously injured by the fire. However, media reports at the time stated that three people were treated for smoke inhalation. Ambulances were called and treated two people at the scene. A 23-year-old man received treatment at the hospital a short while after the blaze.

Are the wooden balconies a cause for concern?

Most people will remember the controversy surrounding the cladding used on the exterior of Grenfell tower. This cladding is now known to have dramatically accelerated the blaze in a matter of minutes.

The Manchester block didn’t have this type of cladding on its exterior. However, the building did have wooden balconies. Eye witnesses stated that the fire spread via the wooden balconies, unsurprising, given the accelerant nature of wood. It’s clear that the forthcoming investigation must look closely at this aspect of the fire.

What’s more, local councillor, Pat Karney, reportedly commented that it was ‘quite disturbing’ because wooden balconies are widespread. However, Manchester City Council are expected to wait for a national judgment before taking any remedial action.

A few days after the fire, the BBC reported that the National Fire Chiefs’ Council (NFCC) and the Greater Manchester Fire and Rescue Service (GMFRS) discussed the issue of the wooden balconies. The NFCC said it would ‘share experiences with the (Grenfell) review into the building regulations’. The Grenfell review, which is ongoing, is expected to make major recommendations to change existing UK legislation.

Would a sprinkler system have helped?

In the months since Grenfell, there has been frequent speculation that a sprinkler system would have saved lives and reduced the scale of the disaster. In addition, the Labour leader, Jeremy Corbyn, has criticised the government for not retrofitting sprinkler systems in all high-rise housing. But in the UK, it’s common policy to adopt a passive fire protection strategy instead.

Interestingly, Dave Baxter from the GMFRS said that the building ‘performed internally very well’. This suggests that there was effective compartmentation in the flats enabling fire fighters to deal with the blaze and evacuate residents safely before the fire spread out of control.

Clearly, the main priority for any building is an up-to-date fire risk assessment. Until this is carried out, it’s impossible to know how many potential fire safety hazards may exist.

What’s the latest update from the Grenfell inquiry?

The work of the inquiry continues with investigators examining written documents which number thousands of pages. The next procedural hearing, which is likely to discuss the progress of the inquiry to date, is scheduled for the end of February.

Meanwhile, the media’s fascination with the tragedy continues. The Guardian recently reported that only three of the 160 social housing blocks, identified as dangerous, have been reclad. And it’s not just council-run blocks which are at risk. A complex of 68 privately owned apartments has Grenfell-style cladding. The landlord of this block is responsible for any remedial costs (as the freeholder), but in this case is refusing to pay.

If you’re interested in reading more about the Grenfell fire, our blogs, here and here, go into greater detail. We’ll keep you informed as the inquiry continues. And check out our other news stories and prosecutions for a comprehensive round-up of fire safety in the UK.

Adam Gillespie

Adam Gillespie

Bedford Systems

Using his 25 years gained in the fire alarm industry, Adam manages our Bedford systems department, including fire alarms, emergency lighting, fire alarm monitoring and gas suppression.

Read more blogs from Adam.

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