Why the London Fire should be a Warning for Goans

By Ashwin Tombat
18 June 2017 16:49 IST

It was 1am in London and 5.30am in Goa on the night between Tuesday and Wednesday when a fire broke out on the Third Floor of the 24-storeyed Grenfell Tower in Kensington, one of the poshest — and poorest — areas of Britain's capital city. Within 45 minutes, it had spread to the very top of the building. The entire structure was ablaze.

It was to take London's Fire Brigade, which mobilised 40 fire engines and 200 firefighters, two days to put out the blaze. The death toll has been steadily climbing. At first six, then 12, later 17 and, at the time of writing, 30. But more than 50 have been reported missing. Police say the number could reach 76, and are hoping it will not climb above 100.

Popular British singer Lily Allen, who grew up near the ill-fated building, has said in an interview with BBC that  the death count was being downplayed by the authorities and mainstream media. According to her, it could be much closer to 150.

It's a terrible tragedy. But what does it have to do with Goa?

Plenty.

The rapid spread of the fire is being blamed on the external Aluminium Composite Panel (ACP) cladding, part of a renovation of the building completed last year. Aluminium Composite Panels are the very same colourful material used to cover the exterior of large numbers of commercial buildings in Goa's cities. It is also the material used to make the facades and sign boards of most shops that have been renovated in recent years in Goa.

There's a very good reason for this. These panels look good. They have a long life, and are mostly maintenance-free. In terms of lifetime costs, they are not that much more expensive than waterproof and fungus resistant paints for the exterior of buildings.

Aluminium Composite Panels are flat sheets consisting of two thin aluminium sheets bonded to a non-aluminium core. Usually, this core comprises polyethylene (PE) or polyurethane (PU), both highly flammable materials.

Besides, the adhesive material or sealant used to bond these panels to the wall to prevent water seepage is equally  — if not more — inflammable than the panel itself. 

Manufacturers claim that their products have fire-retardant mineral additives in the cores, to make them fireproof. But this cladding is available in several varieties; cheaper versions with a core of less fire-resistant material are widely available. The speed with which the fire swept through Grenfell Tower has raised doubts about what kind of panelling was used.

London's fire raises a clear question: How long before it happens here?

Obviously, commercial establishments want to look good. They have to impress their customers. But they also want to save money. Cutting corners in safety is the easiest way to simultaneously achieve both the above objectives.

Contractors in London and Melbourne (whose Lacrosse building burned on 25 November 2014) seem to have used cheap, flammable material. Are contractors in Goa likely to be any different?   

The fact that Aluminium Composite Panels are inflammable is well known in real-estate circles. But none of the builders want to think about it, let alone talk about it. Talking about it, then, becomes the responsibility of us citizens.

Blogger's Profile

Ashwin Tombat

Ashwin Tombat has been the Editor of Gomantak Times and Herald. Worked as an Associate Editor of national magazine Gentleman in Mumbai, before shifting to Goa. Loves sailing, also participates in Marathons. Has worked as an activist in students's union and trade unions in Maharashtra. Also an artist of Street Theatre during student days.

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