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Shortly before 1 am on June 14th in London’s Notting Hill neighborhood, a fire broke out in the Grenfell Tower public housing development. As of June 19th, the fire is confirmed to have claimed 79 lives. In the hours and days following the blaze, criticism was levied against both the building management and the government. Labour MP David Lammy described the incident as “corporate manslaughter” citing inaccessible fire escapes and a lack of functional sprinklers. There were also reports that no fire alarms could be heard in the building.

London Mayor Sadiq Khan said that there were “questions that have to be answered” regarding “bad advice” that management gave residents about emergency procedures. Grenfell Tower’s “stay put” fire policy indicated that residents were “generally safest” if they remained in their flats during a fire as “Grenfell was designed according to rigorous fire safety standards.”

North Kensington tower block fire
[Photo courtesy London Fire Brigade/
The disaster raises questions about resilient designs for high rise buildings, as well as the codes that owners must adhere to. Jerome Hajjar, a Northeastern University professor who collaborates with the Global Resilience Institute, talked to News@Northeastern about how inadequate infrastructure can exacerbate tower fires and make responses to the blazes more difficult for first responders to put out the fires. Additionally, the exacerbated damages can hinder, or even prevent, repairs that would allow residents to return to their daily lives. In Dubai for example, there have been numerous tower fires where “engineers have called into question the cladding products that were used and whether the polymer materials between the sheets of metal skin were not sufficiently fire retardant.”

While it is impossible to eliminate the risk of fire, the materials used and procedures in place for dealing with fires can make the difference between a quick recovery, or a major tragedy.

Grenfell Tower was recently updated with exterior aluminum cladding; the same material was considered a factor in at least three Dubai tower fires. A community organization called The Grenfell Action Group has voiced concerns over the building’s fire safety in 2013 and again in 2016, it published a blog post which read “only a catastrophic event will expose the ineptitude and incompetence of our landlord.” The incident is especially shocking given the neighborhood’s overall affluence but some have criticized city officials for ignoring the complaints and concerns of residents living in public housing.

While terrorism has been ruled out, officials have yet to determine the cause of the fire.

The fire comes at a particularly trying time for Britons as they are still recovering from three terrorist attacks over the past three months. Daniel Aldrich, professor and director of the Security and Resilience Program also spoke with News@Northeastern about the role that social cohesion and active institutions can play in recovering from such an incident. Dr. Aldrich states that community resilience and social capital plays a major role in determining how well a community can get back on its feet following a disaster, such as what was experienced at Grenfell Tower.

Sources and Further Reading:

  1. Grenfell Tower Fire: Council Admits Some Residents May be Rehoused Outside Area – latest – The Guardian
  2. Grenfell Tower Fire is ‘Corporate Manslaughter’ and Arrests Must be Made, Says MP David Lammy – Independent
  3. After the Grenfell Tower Tragedy, the Government Cannot Ignore the UK’s Millions of Renters Any Longer – Independent
  4. London Fire: Sadiq Khan Says ‘Questions to be Answered’ After Grenfell Tower Residents Told to Stay in Flats – Independent
  5. London Fire Shows Why Britons Don’t Trust the System – The New York Times
  6. An Inferno Seemingly from Another Time or Place Kills 12 in London – The Washington Post
  7. The London Fire: What We Know – The New York Times
  8. London Fire: How Structures, and People, can withstand Trauma – News@Northeastern