When news reached the London Fire Brigade about the Grenfell Tower blaze in June, the communications team knew exactly what they had to do. In 2009, the Lackanal House fire, which occurred in a tower block in Camberwell, South London, had claimed six lives. ‘We had developed a communications plan, which had been well rehearsed,’ explains Glenn Sebright, head of communications at London Fire Brigade. ‘We had built up the tools which needed to be used and had created collateral, which we could pull together.
It is important to be ready, to be well rehearsed and able to utilise items swiftly.’ For example, ten months before the Grenfell Tower blaze, which claimed 71 lives, a fire caused by a faulty tumble dryer ripped through a block in Shepherd’s Bush, leading to the evacuation of 100 people. Indeed, one fire a day in London is caused by faulty white goods, resulting in nine fatalities between 2010 and 2016. ‘We had followed that up with a campaign to raise awareness of unsafe white goods,’ he explains.
The initial cause of the Grenfell Tower fire was a Hotpoint fridge freezer, which led London Fire Brigade to re-issue its campaign for a Government-backed register of recalled goods, easily available online, and better regulation of second-hand appliances. It was collateral that could be repurposed and reused.
Sebright manages a team of 24 people, with a remit that covers everything from in-house design to internal communications, media relations, social media, public affairs and the brigade’s museum. It is a 24-hour a day operation, with duty press officers working a rota system.The first calls about Grenfell Tower were received at 00.54 am on 14 June. Sebright arrived in the office at 2.30am. About 250 fire fighters and 70 fire engines fought the blaze. The communications team’s role was to release factual updates, for example, initially confirming that fire engines had been despatched to a major fire.
Clarity is essential. ‘Our priority was to provide accurate information as quickly as possible about what was happening, whether people were injured, whether firefighters were safe, and what level of resource was on site. These were some of the questions we were asking in preparation for the wave of international media interest we knew would ensue,’ he explains. The team also had to coordinate with other emergency services, making sure that messages were aligned and each knew what information was their responsibility. The London Fire Brigade, for example, does not speculate or comment on numbers of fatalities until that is confirmed by the Metropolitan Police.
As images of the blazing fire dominated news channels, the team had to be ready to answer media queries and field requests for interviews. Some communications officers went to the site to coordinate the press and to prepare London Fire Commissioner Dany Cotton, who had been in the role for just six months, for briefings.
‘We were not able to put firefighters up for media interviews as we were aware that there would be a public inquiry [and they had to provide official statements first],’ explains Sebright. The London Fire Brigade averages 400 items of media coverage per month, but in June this rose to 4,782 articles and it has not fallen below 1,700 since. ‘This has been an unprecedented time,’ he adds.