The new head of the London fire brigade today revealed he had apologised to bereaved victims of the Grenfell Tower disaster as he sought to regain their trust.
London fire commissioner Andy Roe also issued a plea to Londoners living in the 7,000 high-rise blocks in the capital to set aside any post-Grenfell doubts and continue to follow firefighters’ advice in the event of a blaze.
He was appointed by Mayor Sadiq Khan to speed the “transformation” of a brigade heavily criticised by the fire watchdog for being too slow to address the failures of Grenfell and requiring widespread improvement.
He met members of the Grenfell Next of Kin group earlier this week. In his first interview since starting the job on January 1, Mr Roe, 45, told the Standard: “I never ever want to be in the situation again where I have to sit across the table from so many bereaved families.
“I offered an apology. I felt that some of our institutional shortcomings… meant we had let my own people down, who were so brave that night, and we had let them down.”
He said he was committed to meeting everyone affected by Grenfell, which claimed 72 lives. He said: “I owe them that. As the London fire commissioner, I’m trusted to serve and protect those people.
“I can’t bring their families back. I will never be able to understand nor make better their pain.
“The best I can do is show that we have listened, that they are respected, that their voice is heard, that I understand them and we are here to serve them and protect them and listen to what they say.
“If anyone knows something about that fire and knows what needs to change, it is those people. We lost their trust.”
It was Mr Roe who, 18 minutes after arriving on scene at Grenfell on the night of the disaster in June 2017, abandoned the “stay put” advice being given to residents and ordered 999 call-handlers to tell them to try to escape.
Last October, the first report from the Grenfell Tower inquiry said more lives could have been saved if “stay put” had been rescinded sooner by commanders already on the ground.
There are currently 283 tall buildings in London where “stay put” is suspended – meaning mass evacuation would be ordered immediately on fire breaking out – because of dangerous cladding or other safety issues.
Mr Roe said it was vital that residents in all high-rise blocks followed advice from firefighters in the event of a fire.
He revealed that firefighters last week had for the first time taken part in a mock exercise that required the emergency evacuation of dozens of “trapped” residents.
A disused nine-storey block in Southwark and dozens of volunteers were used to recreate a Grenfell-type scenario.
A thousand incident commanders are being taught how to determine if a building is “failing” like Grenfell – when fire spreads rapidly – or are correctly designed and able to withstand a blaze until it can be extinguished.
Call handlers are being retrained in what advice to give trapped residents. More mock exercises will be staged. The training will be completed by July 31.
Mr Roe said: “When my officers either say ‘stay put’ or ‘get out’, trust us and listen – that is an absolute priority to me.
“I do accept that if you live in a high rise in London, because of Grenfell, you may not trust that advice at the moment.
“But I could not put it more clearly: stay put is still the best advice for the vast majority of high-rise residents.”
Mr Roe said it was important to remember that fire risks in the capital extended beyond high-rise blocks. The LFB is part of a national group working to update the “stay put” policy.
Mr Roe replaced Dany Cotton, who was forced to retire last December, several months earlier than planned, after she lost the support of the Mayor and Grenfell survivors. He declined to comment on her departure.
He is one of six members of his extended family serving as London firefighters. The former Army officer and keen boxer lives in Bromley and considers himself a “working class London boy”.
Unlike Ms Cotton, who retired aged 50, he is not due to retire until he is 60. “I’m here for the long term,” he said. “I’m here to see the change through.”