A senior fire safety engineer has denied failing to properly scrutinise an assessment for Grenfell Tower which she signed off as “fine” just before going on a fortnight’s holiday, the inquiry into the disaster heard.
Clare Barker, the former principal fire engineer at Exova, approved a colleague’s draft fire strategy report for the high-rise block pre-refurbishment in 2012, claiming to have spent a “couple of hours” reviewing it but without billing any hours for the work.
She also said the report made no provision for physically disabled residents because it was not mandated by building guidance, telling the hearing: “If they did have mobility issues, then maybe Grenfell Tower wasn’t the best place for them to live.”
Her evidence on Monday came on the inquiry’s first sitting since mid-March, when it was paused because of the coronavirus pandemic.
Survivors and those bereaved by the blaze have criticised the inquiry for holding limited attendance hearings to comply with social distancing – with only witnesses, some lawyers, and panel members allowed in the inquiry building.
During early discussions about refurbishing the 24-storey west London block, Dr Barker did not think that over-cladding the exterior would pose any “particular issues or problems” for fire safety and did not raise the need for any proposed cladding system to have a separate fire safety assessment, the inquiry heard.
Warrington-based Dr Barker said she was involved with the Grenfell Tower refurbishment project only between July and August 2012, and she then passed on the project to her London-based colleague, Terry Ashton, who was off ill during her involvement.
One of her acts was peer-reviewing a draft fire strategy report for the existing building in its pre-refurbishment state carried out by colleague Cate Cooney, who completed it remotely from Warrington based on microfiche drawings of “very poor” quality and information from a colleague’s site-visit, the inquiry previously heard.
The report – which was not updated – contained a number of assumptions and did not fully take account of a previous fire risk assessment from 2010, notably a document called Significant Findings and Action Plan, the inquiry heard.
The inquiry’s chief lawyer, Richard Millett QC, asked: “Is the reality that you didn’t have time to chase up this extra document and make sure that you fully understood the full extent of the fire risk assessment because you were going on holiday?”
Dr Barker said:“I think time was a factor, it wasn’t necessarily because I was going on holiday. There was other workload factors there.”
She said she went through the report with a “critical eye”, and said: “I don’t think I didn’t do a proper job”.
Lack of detail
Asked about a lack of detail in the report for evacuating people with mobility issues, Dr Barker said: “I did not consider that.
“Because again if they did have mobility issues then maybe Grenfell Tower wasn’t the best place for them to live.
“Approved Document B doesn’t make any provisions in residential buildings for people with mobility impairments. That’s not to say that they can’t be put in.”
However Mr Millett showed passages of Approved Document B – widely used for building guidance in England – which displayed “at the very least a consciousness that fire safety systems should take account of people with mobility issues”.
Dr Barker suggested it was up to the Kensington and Chelsea Tenant Management Organisation to “consider if some of them did have mobility impairments to house them in a high rise residential building might not be an appropriate place to put them”.
On August 16 2012, Dr Barker’s last day in the office before two weeks’ of annual leave, she replied to Ms Cooney’s draft report with an email which said: “Have reviewed it and it is fine. Cheers Clare.”
But no hours were logged for the review, which she said she spent “a couple of hours” completing, the inquiry heard.
Mr Millett asked: “Is the reality that you didn’t log any time at all because your review was so brief that honesty forbade it?”
Dr Barker replied: “No.”
Her evidence came as a group representing victims, survivors and the bereaved called for the inquiry to “investigate the extent of institutional racism as a factor” in the tragedy.
The Grenfell Next of Kin group also called for “inclusive and full participation” in plans for the memorial site and a “proper and independent recovery and support plan” for those directly affected by the disaster.
Seventy-two people died as a result of the fire at 24-storey Grenfell Tower in June 2017, when an electrical fault in a fridge freezer sparked a catastrophic blaze which was fuelled by the building’s flammable cladding.
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