The stay put strategy was developed decades ago in conjunction with statutory Building Regulations which specified minimum standards of fire resistance and fire compartmentation of rooms and escape routes. The regulations and the stay put strategy have for the most part been extremely effective in the last 60 odd years in saving lives. Typically when there is a fire in a high rise building, it is contained in the room of origin, and the brigade can control and extinguish it.
It's not surprising that the Brigades are very hierachical organisations and that they sometimes exhibit rigid mindsets and approaches. Fire fighters are routinely deployed in extremely dangerous conditions, and they are able to do so because they follow the procedures that have been drilled into them in their training. If they deviate from what they are trained to do, it greatly increases the risk that they, or their colleagues, or other persons at risk in the building will be seriously harmed or even killed. They are of necessity a very highly disciplined organisation and they will always default to following procedure, including at senior levels.
I suspect that the report has been too simplistic in just stating that the decision to abandon the stay put policy and evacuate Grenfell Tower should have been taken earlier. I don't think the panel had the expertise, the experience, sufficient time, and sufficient resources to properly consider the full implications of that proposal. I am not saying that it is wrong, but rather if you are going to say that the brigade should have handled it differently, then you need to consider:
- what alternative procedures and guidelines they should have in place (not just say with the benefit of hindsight that fewer people might have died if an arbitrary decision had been made to go against procedures and evacuate earlier). I'm not suggesting the panel itself re-write the FB guidance, but it needs to be able to state with high confidence (based on expert evidence) that the procedures the brigades follow could reasonably be changed, and give some indication of when it thought that the procedures should indicate that evacuation should be considered.
- what the implications of brigades adopting such new guidelines might be. There is a clear danger that if you evacuate too early/unnecessarily, matters will be made worse. Firefighters will have to be diverted from fighting the fire to escorting people from the building and checking rooms and floors for anyone left behind. If corridors and stairwells are or become smoke logged during the evacuation, that will greatly endanger the people being evacuated (most people who are killed in fires die as a result of smoke inhalation).
- the potential need for far greater resources for mass evacuation, both in terms of numbers of firefighters, their equipment (not just more of it, but possibly different equipment, e.g. more sophisticated comms and computer equipment for managing a mass evacuation).
- the weight and limited duration of breathing apparatus is a major constraint on how long firefighters can work in buildings on fire, especially high rise buildings where they will use up a lot of their oxygen supply just going up the stairs carrying heavy equipment. Mass evacuations would probably necessitate strategies involving not only more firefighters but also many more BA kits, and possibly procedures for some firefighters to act like sherpas by transporting fresh BA kits up to the fire floors for their colleagues (i.e. similar tactics to climbing Everest). Some form of lightweight BA kit/smoke hood might also need to be provided to people being evacuated through smoke logged corridors and stairwells.
In other words, mass evacuation is not straightforward and entails its own risks and problems, which I don't think that the panel could possibly have explored properly given the time and resources it had available. It seems that the panel instead has said that the decision to evacuate earlier should have been taken without reference to any existing guidance or procedures, i.e. the incident commander was expected at some - possibly arbitrary - point to deviate from the rules that brigades always follow sooner than actually occurred at Grenfell Tower.
I suspect the criticism of the leadership of the brigade is flawed because it has not been founded on a sufficiently full understanding of the alternative course of action that it suggests should have been taken.
The FBU has complained about the report into the brigade's actions coming before the report of the causes of/contributory factors to the severity of the fire. I have some sympathy with that view, because the really big issue is not the action of the brigades, but rather the factors which resulted in a building which was inherently safe when built and first occupied being turned into a death trap. Much has been made of the flammable cladding, but from some comments I have read I think that there may be some other very significant factors (e.g. compartmentation breached and gas pipelines not properly enclosed in fire resisting material etc.). These raise major and very difficult questions about how we manage, control, regulate and enforce building safety in existing buildings. Prevention is vastly more important than cure, and overly focusing on the suggestion that brigades need to be prepared (and resourced, trained and equipped) for mass evacuation is a distraction from what matters most.