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Tower block in Ipswich gets the full check in fire service exercise after Grenfell

PUBLISHED: 22:19 17 July 2017 | UPDATED: 09:32 18 July 2017

Firefighters taking part in the exercise at Cumberland Towers. Picture PAUL GEATER

Firefighters taking part in the exercise at Cumberland Towers. Picture PAUL GEATER

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The only council-owned tower block in Ipswich has been the scene of full-scale fire service exercises in a bid to check safety and reassure residents in the wake of the Grenfell disaster in Kensington.

Suffolk Chief Fire Officer Mark Hardingham at Cumberland Towers. Suffolk Chief Fire Officer Mark Hardingham at Cumberland Towers.

Cumberland Towers has 11 storeys of flats on Norwich Road. It is a sheltered housing development owned and managed by the borough council – and it is currently undergoing a makeover.

It has always had regular checks by the fire service so firefighters are familiar with the issues if they ever have to tackle a fire there – and to reassure residents who were understandably concerned when they saw pictures of the fire at Grenfell Tower last month.

The block normally hosts exercises four times a year, in a bid to ensure that all four fire watches have a chance to keep up to date with issues fighting fires in the building.

Since Grenfell an extra four have been scheduled – and we were invited to see how the fire service would cope. We were joined by Suffolk’s Chief Fire Officer Mark Hardingham.

Firefighters taking part in the exercise at Cumberland Towers. Picture PAUL GEATER Firefighters taking part in the exercise at Cumberland Towers. Picture PAUL GEATER

The scenario was that a fire had broken out in a flat on the ninth floor and someone was trapped inside.

Firefighters had to establish a control point, from where senior officers could take decisions on how to tackle the “blaze” two floors below – and a second control point in the lobby from where it was easier to liaise with the fire appliances.

Crews from Ipswich (Princes St and Ipswich East) were joined by teams from Felixstowe and Framlingham in the scenario which also tested the facilities for fighting fires in the area.

They arrived at the flats in sequence, as they would in a real fire, but without the “blues and twos” because they are only used in an emergency.

Cumberland Towers Cumberland Towers

The flats are built to make them as fire resistant as possible. Mr Hardingham said each individual flat was designed in a way that a fire should be able to be contained inside it for at least an hour – giving plenty of time for fire crews to arrive and deal with it or, in the worst scenario, evacuate other flats.

There are easy routes out of the flats – and there is a dry riser system making it possible to pump water from a hydrant on the ground through the centre of the flats to outlets on each floor.

The fire service classifies any building over 18m in height as “high-rise” needing special plans in place to fight fires. There are about 110 buildings fitting that category in Suffolk at present.

Mr Hardingham said there were major differences between the Grenfell Tower tragedy and the high-rise buildings in Suffolk, including Cumberland Towers.

Firefighters taking part in the exercise at Cumberland Towers. Picture PAUL GEATER Firefighters taking part in the exercise at Cumberland Towers. Picture PAUL GEATER

“But the tragedy did show the need to be prepared in case – and of course in the wake of this residents and their families need reassurance that the fire service is able to deal with this kind of fire.

“It does look as if it was the cladding that caused the problems there, there were lumps of aluminium coming down on to firefighters. There is not that kind of cladding here,” he said.

Fire crews spent just over an hour at Cumberland Towers before returning to Princes Street to analyse what they had learned from the exercise.

Matthew Hicks, Suffolk County Council’s cabinet member for public protection, said: “These training exercises are extremely helpful as they enable our crews to refine their responses to incidents in high-rise accommodation.

“Incidents such as the ones we have been simulating are thankfully few and far between in Suffolk but we must aim to have the best possible response – these exercises allow us to prepare for that.”

Ipswich Council’s portfolio holder for housing Neil McDonald said his authority was very keen to work with the fire service on exercises like this.

He said: “People have to be able to feel safe in their own homes and the safety and peace of mind of our tenants is our number one priority.

“It is vital that people should not only be safe – but that they should know they are safe. That is what exercises like this are there to do.”

This was the second exercise at Cumberland Towers since the Grenfell tragedy.

Another two are planned over the summer – one in the next fortnight and one in September.

Residents of Cumberland Towers are told when they are to happen to avoid them worrying unnecessarily, and Suffolk Fire and Rescue use social media to tell others what is happening in a bid to prevent people feeling alarmed by the fire appliances.

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