Hundreds of council flats placed on 24-hour watch over fire concerns
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Residents of five Stevenage tower blocks have been told they need a 24-hour waking watch, after a fire safety inspection on their windows proved “inconclusive”.
The Comet has been told there was a previous complaint about smoke leaking into the one of the blocks during a fire.
The council said it was moving forward plans to replace windows in the blocks but would first install sprinkler systems. Until the sprinklers are installed, residents have been told their advice in the event of a fire has changed from “stay put” to a full evacuation.
Letters from the council said guards would patrol the buildings and sound an airhorn if they discovered a fire.
The new instructions cover 356 flats across the five buildings – two of which have previously had fatal fires.
The five blocks are Brent Court, High Plash, High Croft, Harrow Court and The Towers.
In 2005, a fire at Harrow Court killed three people, including two firefighters. Subsequent investigations uncovered fire safety problems in the block.
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Bus driver Steven Le-Petit, who lives in The Towers, said he had worried for years that his windows were a fire hazard.
“It’s always been a concern,” he said – but his concerns grew after a fatal fire at the block in October 2018.
A man died in hospital after being rescued from a fifth-floor flat and two other people received medical treatment.
Steven was at home on the day and defied official “stay put” advice, instead evacuating the building.
Once outside, he recalled, “A guy came out and said, ‘My flat’s destroyed. It’s been destroyed by smoke’.
“He had to call 999 and get firefighters to get him out. He said his windows had been shut at the time.”
The fire service log did record that one person had to be “escorted” to safety from the seventh floor, said Hertfordshire County Council.
Stevenage Council confirmed that there had been a complaint about smoke damage to a seventh-floor flat and the resident had been relocated after the fire.
“They are horrible, those windows,” said Steven. “When it’s cold, the draught gets in. They’re ancient.”
Since that day, said Steven, “I worry about smoke getting into my flat in a fire.”
Stevenage Council said it had recently inspected the five blocks under new fire safety guidance, issued in March.
When tests on the window infill panels failed to determine whether or not they were safe, the authority consulted Hertfordshire Fire and Rescue Service.
The fire brigade said the advice, in the event of a fire, should change to a “simultaneous evacuation strategy”.
Round-the-clock monitoring of the buildings was introduced on June 9 and will continue until sprinkler systems can be installed.
The stairs, landings and external perimeters of the buildings will be checked every 30 minutes.
Works on the sprinkler systems are set to begin next month and may take nine months, a Stevenage Council spokesperson said.
“As soon as this work is complete, the patrols can be removed and the stay put evacuation policy can return,” they added.
“This is because a fire is significantly less likely to develop and reach other parts of the building.”
Longer-term, the council said in a letter to residents that it would “bring forward our programme of refurbishment work and replace the infill panels, along with the windows, which were due to be replaced in the next few years.”
However, a spokesperson told The Comet there was no timeline yet for when the works to the windows would be completed.
“The patrols and sprinklers give us time to consider how we replace the panels, which is dependent on other things, such as a resident consultation, design, planning and procurement,” a spokesperson said.
“At this stage, it is difficult to provide a detailed timeline for replacing the panels and the windows until we’ve prepared the programme in consultation with all the relevant stakeholders.”
Residents have been told in writing, by the council’s assistant director of housing and investment Jaine Cresser, that they will not incur any costs for any of the remedial works.