A firefighter. Photo: fordingtonfield A firefighter. Photo: fordingtonfield

The retired firefighter that is set to chair the response to the Grenfell disaster has a history of implementing austerity, writes this London firefighter

It’s October 2002 and members of the Fire Brigades Union have just successfully balloted for strike action to bring their pay up to date, having fallen woefully behind over the previous decade. While PM Tony Blair busies himself calling the FBU “criminally irresponsible”, the Chief Officer of the West Midlands Fire Service quietly receives a behind-closed-doors 18% pay rise. Who is this chauffeur-driven chief? It’s none other than the not-yet-knighted Ken Knight CBE.

Fast forward a year and Ken’s now Commissioner of the London Fire Brigade. Legacies of his tenure in London include turning all the officers into managers, and making 27 fire engines unavailable for emergency calls every day so that they can be used for other tasks, like training and community safety. It’s this removal of 27 appliances daily that eventually gives Boris Johnson the justification to do away with them altogether. Oh, and he closed Manchester Square Fire Station.

Ken, by now Sir Ken, leaves the fire service in 2013, having left the London Fire Brigade in 2007 for a job as the Government’s Chief Advisor to the Fire Service (what used to be Her Majesty’s Inspector) and uses the opportunity to put the boot into the service that’s served him so well. As director of Ken Knight Consulting Ltd he’s the industry’s gun for hire when you need a hatchet job, and in 2013 he’s the author of a review of the Fire Service called Facing The Future. Here he recommends £200 million worth of cuts to the service nationally and converting 10% of all full-time posts into what he disingenuously refers to as “on-call” firefighters. “On call” being code for on call at home or engaged in other employment, not employed and available on a fire station.

In the meantime, in July 2009, six people die in a fire at Lakanal House in Camberwell, South London. Ken’s the Government’s Chief Advisor and in his report produced later that month considers whether a sprinkler system might have saved those people’s lives. What does he say? Well, he says that yes, these systems are very effective and indeed are compulsory in residential buildings over 30m high built since 2006. So, should we retro-fit them in older premises? Not economically viable, says Ken. Not economically viable.

It’s 2017. The final death toll from the disaster at Grenfell Tower is still not known. Someone needs to chair a panel charged to make public and private buildings as safe as possible as quickly as possible. Who you gonna call?

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