After 10 or 15 years of declining incidence of fires, two large-scale property fires in Europe attracted widespread attention because of the enormity of the damage. This begs the question, are risk managers resting on their laurels when it comes to traditional risks, focusing too much on emerging risks?

In the spring of 2017, a survey of Airmic members found that attitudes to fire risk in the profession were overwhelmingly relaxed. At that time, fire was rated a top risk by as few as 10% of risk and insurance managers, and just 7% anticipated that fire would be a high-level risk in the coming three years. The months that followed changed that thinking, as heart-breaking scenes unfolded at Grenfell Tower high-rise housing block in North Kensington, London, in June. That fire took 72 lives, and scarred hundreds more. 

Since Grenfell, blazes in buildings have continued to dog the UK; (and across the globe, a different kind of first risk played out during the summer of 2018 — see box). The Glasgow School of Art was engulfed by fire in June 2018 for the second time in four years: The category A listed building, designed by Scottish architect and artist Charles Rennie Mackintosh and completed in 1909, had gone up in flames four years earlier, in May 2014, amid a high-profile renovation project, and subsequently had not been fitted with a sprinkler system. Two months later, in Belfast, Northern Ireland, 1,500 staff and shoppers were evacuated safely from a large Primark clothing store situated in the grade B1 listed Bank Buildings, part of which property was undergoing a €33.5 million redevelopment to add 30,000 square foot of new space. In fact, the news headlines of 2018 have been punctuated by fire stories (see box), many linked to building renovation projects.

Did we, as a profession, take our eye off the ball? I don’t know… but it’s important to remember that these type of events do happen, and not only fire. When you look at the collapse of the Morandi bridge in Genoa, Italy, in August, you see that, much like Grenfell, people had said, ‘something’s not right here’, and they were not listened to - Colin Campbell

Have risk managers taken their eye of the ball?

What’s going on? After 10 or 15 years of declining incidence of fires, has the risk and insurance community taken its eye off the ball on fire risk? “Fifteen, 20, or 30 years ago, fire was considered much more of a risk,” says Colin Campbell, head of risk and compliance at Arcadia Group, which operates 2,805 stores in 37 countries across high street brands including Top Man and Top Shop, Burton, Miss Selfridge, and Dorothy Perkins. “Around the late 1980s and early 1990s, everyone was really fed up with fires causing loss of life, and property damage,” says Campbell. “It was business, insurers, the regulators, and government, and the Fire Bridge had a big part to play and was an important driver in wanting to get it right. It was all of us working together.” The shared ambition to reduce the number and severity of fires was realised during the coming decades, helped along by better building regulations, new technology such as sprinkler systems, and heat and smoke detectors, the ban on smoking in public places introduced in 2007, and improved risk management practices. In November 2013, The Times (in a piece related to strike action over pensions by the Fire Brigades Union), reported that firefighters had attended 48 per cent fewer fires overall, and 39 per cent fewer in buildings, in 2011 compared to a decade earlier.

“Did we, as a profession, take our eye off the ball? I don’t know… but it’s important to remember that these type of events do happen, and not only fire. When you look at the collapse of the Morandi bridge in Genoa, Italy, in August, you see that, much like Grenfell, people had said, ‘something’s not right here’, and they were not listened to,” says Campbell. Grenfell Tower was refurbished with new cladding and windows in 2016. The ongoing Grenfell Tower Inquiry has heard evidence that residents at that time raised concerns about safety with Kensington and Chelsea Council tenant management board, but were not listened to.

Failure to listen

As well as a failure to listen to residents’ concerns, research after Grenfell has suggested that there was “limited interaction”, between fire safety engineers and risk and insurance professionals, believes Hugh Forster, managing consultant at Marsh Risk Consulting. The Hackitt Report, an independent review of building regulations and fire safety that was commissioned in the aftermath of the fire, and published in May 2018, highlighted weaknesses in the Building Regulations 2010, including particularly Approved Document B, which covers the requirement for testing or assessing the fire safeness of external cladding systems.

“It has become obvious that the building regulations, particularly Document B, are extremely difficult to use, and that there has been a disconnect between the fire safety engineers designing the buildings, using Document B, and the insurance side of the business,” says Forster, who is a member of the Institute of Fire Engineers. Forster adds that among the 20,000 people in the UK who conduct fire safety assessments, only around 800, or 4%, are registered competent.


It has become obvious that the building regulations, particularly Document B, are extremely difficult to use, and that there has been a disconnect between the fire safety engineers designing the buildings, using Document B, and the insurance side of the business - Hugh Forster

The shortage of skilled assessors became clear as companies wanted to review their estates post-Grenfell. “What Grenfell did was to really bring home to everyone the fire and health and safety risk,” says Asif Bhatti, director of audit and risk at Whitbread, the hospitality company which operates 785 Premier Inn hotels and 2,400 Costa coffee shops. “The worry is, what broke down in the process? There appear to have been multiple failures. How do you test your product and know that it’s fit for purpose? When you get ambiguities in the regulation, which is what people are saying now — that’s it’s not fit for purpose… the example of fire doors is a good one: are the regulations fit for purpose?”

After the disaster, Whitbread completed a comprehensive review of the cladding on all of its buildings, as well as other fire safety components such as doors and stairwells, in what Bhatti describes as a “complex process, working for a year, and taking a hell of a lot of resource. Our response was very, very thorough.” Echoing Forster’s comment about a shortage of service providers to support such activity, Bhatti says: “Suppliers of cladding and retrofit have a waiting list of years, because there are only a handful of them. And the fire testing facilities are now fully booked.” Arcadia and Whitbread, among many others, both also reviewed evacuation procedures after the fire. Says Bhatti: “If anything, we were very reassured. What we have in place is really robust.”

Bhatti, who also chairs Gloucester City Homes, a housing association which manages 4,862 homes of various kinds in Gloucester, including one tower block, believes that, post-Grenfell, it’s imperative for risk professionals to review the balance of time and energy given over to managing conventional risks such as fire, compared to “more complex and sexier risks — like the risk of being attacked by a Russian hacker. ”I wouldn’t say that the profession was neglecting fire risk, just not focusing on it as much as we used to. Those of us managing risk day-to-day are inundated by cyber, data breach, GDPR (the General Data Protection Regulation which came into force in May 2018). These risks are potential brand-killers, and it’s a lot on the horizon to keep your eyes on.”

Too much focus on emerging risks?

He says that the danger in focusing overmuch on emerging risks such as cyber, is that familiar risks like fire may be downplayed. “Most car accidents occur within a mile of the home, because drivers are familiar with the conditions and become over-confident. It’s easy to become distracted by the brand-killers, and to forget that there are people-killers out there,” he says.

“There was an immediacy to the response, and that is now settling down,” concludes Campbell. “All of the research and investigation that is going on post-Grenfell, whether it’s understanding the dynamics of fire, smoke and smoke venting … it’s all continuous learning. We hadn’t taken our eye off the ball, but is there any room for complacency? The answer is no.”

Fires affect people and property up and down the UK in 2018

Buildings across the UK have been hit by fire in the year following the Grenfell Tower disaster, including numerous blazes that are linked to the refurbishment of old and/or listed buildings.

1. Grenfell Tower, Borough of Kensington and Chelsea, London, June 2017

A combustible cladding system in the 24-storey housing block, which was fitted during a renovation in 2016, caught alight, killing 72 people, marring the lives of hundreds more, and destroying the building. The Grenfell Tower Inquiry, an independent public inquiry into the disaster, which looks likely to lead to criminal prosecutions, is continuing.

2. Bristol University Campus, January 2018

A large fire broke out in the grade II* listed Fry Building at Bristol University, which was undergoing a £33 million refurbishment. The five-storey building sustained damage mainly to the roof.

3. Victoria’s nightclub, Glasgow, March 2018

The roof of a nightclub in Glasgow’s Sauchiehall Street caught fire in what was one of the Scottish Fire and Rescue Service’s biggest incidents, requiring 120 firefighters. Initial fears about asbestos dust were later found to be unwarranted. The building was so badly damaged that it is to be demolished.

4. Battersea Arts Centre, Borough of Kensington and Chelsea, London, March 2018

A major fire took hold in Battersea Arts Centre, South London, destroying a section of the roof. The grade II listed building was undergoing a refurbishment when it caught alight.

5. East End Homes, Borough of Tower Hamlets, London, June 2018

A housing block in Mile End, East London, caught alight and was attended by eight fire engines and 58 firefighters. No one was injured.

6. Glasgow School of Art, June 2018

The Charles Rennie Mackintosh-designed Glasgow School of Art went up in flames for the second time in four years. The building caught alight amid a renovation in May 2014, but no sprinkler system was fitted subsequently.

7. UK Snacks Ltd food factory, East London, June 2018

A large fire tore through a food factory in East London, which had been purposed built for UK Snacks Ltd, the company which claims to have brought the Bombay mix to the UK.

8. Primark, Belfast, September 2018

One-and-a-half thousand staff and shoppers were evacuated safely from a five-storey Primark clothing store in the Bank Buildings, Belfast, when fire struck. As well as the damage to the building, local businesses were hit by business interruption during a sustained period when the building was cordoned off.


Wildfires blaze amid extreme dry weather

Soaring temperatures and low rainfall contributed to wildfires taking hold across the globe during the summer months of 2018


In July, a huge wildfire blazed on Saddleworth Moor, Manchester, was attended by more than 100 firefighters from Greater Manchester Fire and Rescue Service, and military personnel. The fire was later attributed to arson. That same month,15 homes were evacuated in Gwynedd, North Wales, when a wildfire broke out, and firefighters battled a blaze in the Malvern Hills, Worcester. In August, the Staffordshire Moorlands in Stoke-on-Trent caught alight.


Several villages were evacuated in Ljusdal, Sweden, when a forest fire took hold in July.


In the Algarve, as temperatures hit 47 degrees celcius in August, the five-star Macdonald Monchique Resort & Spa holiday resort, and residents of local villages, were evacuated when a forest fire broke out.


In Greece, 83 people were killed, a state of emergency declared, and more than 500 homes destroyed, as wildfire swept through the resort town of Mati, near the Greek capital Athens, in what later became a suspected case of arson. There were several separate forest fires, including one that hit the resort town of Kineta. In September, a wildfire broke out near a crowded refugee camp, known as Moria, on the Greek island of Lesbos.

California, US

In August, a national disaster was declared in Northern California due to extensive wildfires burning across the region, costing an estimated $1.35 billion in fire suppression activity, and a further $1.61 billion in damage.


What Grenfell has taught us about fire risk (so far)

After the Grenfell Tower disaster, risk managers have been reflecting on their attitude to fire risk

Listen and act: The appropriate people need to listen to what all stakeholders are saying about fire or health and safety, and to act on it.

Communicate and interact: Interaction between fire safety engineers and the insurance side of organisations has broken down, and should be restored.

Evacuation/invacuation procedures: Organisations need to review their policies and procedures regarding evacuation and invacuation, or “staying put”, during a fire.

Fire doors/ smoke venting: New knowledge is coming to light as a result of the post-Grenfell research and investigation effort which will help to improve understanding of fire risk.

Fire risk assessors: There are not enough of them registered competent for the size of the job in hand.

Balance of focus: It’s important to retain a balance of resource and effort between managing the sexier, emerging risks such as cyber, and more conventional risks like fire, and health and safety.