You would need a soul of ice not to feel sympathy for Michael Dowden, the London firefighter who, as watch manager, led the initial response to the Grenfell Tower fire that killed 72 people and has scarred the lives of many more, including his. Dowden’s two days under question at the inquiry into why that dreadful event occurred and how it was responded to have plainly been a huge ordeal for him.
He has been obliged to publicly account for his actions on the night and at one stage was reduced to tears. Questioned by a high-powered lawyer with reporters looking on, he has told the inquiry that in the hour when he was in charge, he was “out of his comfort zone”, unaware of London Fire Brigade (LFB) guidance about the flammability of building cladding products, not trained to make decisions about when the “stay put” policy should be abandoned, and failed to follow national guidance when carrying out safety checks on the tower in 2016, resulting in cladding, sprinklers, radio blackspots and escape routes going unchecked.
The inquiry is not a court of law, Michael Dowden is not on trial and the inquiry is a long way from reaching any conclusions about what occurred, including the conduct of individuals. However, Dowden’s evidence to the inquiry has put an unforgiving spotlight on the preparedness of the capital’s fire service for dealing with a blaze like Grenfell and its role in assessing the building’s fire safety provision before it happened.
I doubt I am the only Londoner who feels uncomfortable about this. We rightly revere the bravery of the city’s firefighters, and no one can possibly doubt that plenty of it was demanded of those who went in to the inferno on that terrible night, intent on saving lives. Perhaps, too, there is unwillingness among us to accept that fault might legitimately be found within the LFB, an organisation whose members we want to feel we can rely on and who can be required to take risks with their own safety that most of us would flinch from.
But such sentiments can be very far from helpful when facts need to be established and faced. It is the inquiry’s job to establish the facts of Grenfell – to, in its own words, “examine the circumstances leading up to and surrounding the fire“. It is the responsibility of all who were party to those circumstances to acknowledge the facts that emerge, including those provided by their own members that might be troubling. The impulse behind the London Fire Brigade Union launching a social media campaign in support of their comrade is not hard to understand, but neither is it appropriate.
There has been far too much rushing to judgement about Grenfell – too much anointing of saints, too much partisan apportioning of blame. Large media bodies and even, astonishingly, members of parliament have been in the forefront of this, in some cases even before the flames were quelled.
Seventy-two people were killed by the Grenfell Tower fire, an avoidable calamity that must never be repeated in London or anywhere else. The inquiry’s job is to find out why it happened, why those people died and why so many others have been damaged by it in different ways, including Michael Dowden. If it emerges that the London Fire Brigade as an institution, some members of it or both were at fault, then Londoners need to know it and the brigade had better deal with it.
The Grenfell Inquiry continues its work today.