What we learnt from people who responded at Grenfell


Over the past 8 weeks we have been looking into what people need, and often don’t get, when they experience a flood or a fire. To learn more about why we’re doing this, or to find out what we’ve learnt so far, check out our blog series.

Grenfell Tower fire, 2017 — image source

In week 5 we spoke to community groups who had responded at Grenfell. We did this to:

  • find out what their needs were
  • how they helped meet the needs of the people impacted by Grenfell
  • where they felt they needed more support but didn’t get it

Here is what we learnt…

Emergency response plans must include local community groups

In the immediate response to an emergency, the main focus of many organisations is to meet the needs and support people in crisis. However, at Grenfell in the absence of a statutory leader like the council, community groups and individuals begin to self-mobilise, opening their doors and help people.

“it was complete chaos, but nobody on the ground taking full ownership”

“I just turned up, and it was the women with the loudest voice who seemed to be in control”

“when you’re dealing with a local authority who are old school and out of touch, you take ownership”

Unfortunately there is a lack of formal communications between organisations. This created barriers to the emergency response and lead to politics and power play when community groups feeling wrongly excluded from decision making.

“being on the table helped with coordination… not being on the table was difficult”

“local people who had the language and understood the culture weren’t allowed in, yet BRC were and they didn’t get it”

“we had appetite to work together, but it just didn’t work”

To ensure effective emergency response, particularly where statutory organisations fail to respond properly, emergency response plans must utilise the local knowledge, relationships and capability of community groups.

Local community groups have the structure to act quickly and meet people’s basic needs

The staff in smaller, community groups can use their size and autonomy to respond and are not subjected to the level of internal politics and hierarchical sign off that is commonplace within larger organisations.

At Grenfell this meant that community groups and smaller voluntary organisations could respond quicker. Whereas larger voluntary organisations needed to wait permission.

“the staff and volunteers mobilised themselves, by the time I got there the building was already open”

“our managers were really understanding, we had to drop all business as usual to respond”

“they [larger organisation] couldn’t do much, they couldn’t support, I was confused, why were they there… they said that they were waiting for direction”

For many hours, community groups were the only ones on hand to support people impacted by Grenfell. While despite having little prior training of how to response in an emergency. They were effective at mobilising local volunteers and meeting the immediate basic needs of people in crisis. Community groups set up food banks and safe spaces, begun registering people and coordinated volunteers and donations.

“we were providing clothing, food, you know… the total basics. But that was what people needed”

“local volunteers were invaluable, a source of information and solidarity”

“we got offers of storage from people and teams of friends cooked every day”

Community groups are trusted responders

Community groups also benefitted from having the local knowledge and cultural awareness to respond sensitively to peoples needs. They quickly became trusted responders. When statutory and larger voluntary organisations arrived “it was too late”, as people wanted to stay with their trusted community groups.

The groups we interviewed spoke of there being “a lot of hurt in the way people were being processed” and criticised larger voluntary and statutory organisations for being “insufficiently sensitive or culturally aware”. This created a barrier to registration, as people were reluctant to make themselves known or give over personal information to statutory or larger voluntary responders.

“people didn’t want to go to Westway [local council’s official rest centre], they wanted to stay here”

“the registration process took such a long time, because people didn’t trust or want to go forward”

While it is necessary for responders to be visible so that people know who and where to go to for support, an overly formal setting can be off putting.

“I’ve definitely learnt that we need name badges so that we know who’s who and who’s part of your team”

“They were the first organisation I saw. They had desks and chairs but it just looked like a crime scene”

Also, if organisations are visible, but are disorganised, can’t provide answers, or seen to be doing very little, this increases frustration.

“They came to me and asked me to give emotional support to somebody, but what were they there for? They said it was to register people, but when asked how many people they had registered, they didn’t know… I was just thinking… seriously, what are they there for?”

Community groups quickly become overwhelmed as resources were stretched

As their capacity and capability was stretched to the limitCommunity groups are effective in meeting immediate basic needs but struggled to maintain response to Grenfell. Several people spoke about not being able to manage the immense level of donated items. Having to replace thing like toilets. Not having the resources or skills to respond to the accommodation and longer terms needs of the people.

“we weren’t prepared to deal with accommodation or the long-term needs of people”

“we quickly ran out of space, but donations just kept on coming”

“we struggled to manage the amount of clothes and things people were donating”

“I was most shocked at the level of donated stuff”

Fortunately, businesses help alleviate some stress from community groups and responders. Some businesses suppling food and clothing to meet basic needs, fixing utilities, and providing storage.

“Pret sent us food every day and the local business were amazing.

“Uber gave me free trips into work because it was difficult to get into the area”

“We had to get our pluming redone because it kept on getting blocked, luckily a local business fixed it for us for free”

Community groups also struggled to deal with the massive influx of spontaneous volunteers. Challenges around accessing the area as roads were gridlocked. Community groups and people in need struggled to know who was who amongst the chaos, speaking of having to bypass due diligence to ensure people could help and be helped.

“so many people came from all over to volunteer, but we couldn’t vet them properly”

“I went to help out and thankfully he trusted me to help, even though he didn’t know me”

Spontaneous volunteers can quickly become people in need

Perhaps the most concerning issue for community groups was that spontaneous volunteers were arriving already distressed, adding to the number of people needing support;

“you could see the fire as soon as you came out of the station, volunteers were arriving distressed, they were already in tears by the time they got here, so we had to deal with them in addition to those already impacted by the fire”

Often people supporting spontaneously did so without much thought for their own wellbeing. During the response little thought was spared for how emergency responders are coping;

“it’s not until weeks after that you pause to reflect”

“I didn’t even realise I was having a breakdown”

“it’s still emotional for me just speaking about it, this is a triggering subject for me”

While having other volunteers around during the response was reassuring, with some responders coming together afterwards to debrief, none we spoke to mentioned receiving any formal support.

“We organised a weekly catch up ourselves for responders to come together and talk, that seemed to help”

“we were lucky as we were able to sort out some support from the wider church, but without that I don’t know what we would have done, there wasn’t really any help”

“It helped to know that when I looked to my right, he was there. Having others there responding with you, that definitely helped”

One person we spoke still got quite emotional when speaking about the Grenfell fire. To date they hadn’t received any support. However, for these responders, speaking to someone could work as protection against some post-traumatic stress or long term mental health. People are left with a sense of pride that they could help:

“I’m conscious of all this learning I’ve done and haven’t documented anywhere until now”

“thank you for this interview, I feel like I’ve finally got the closure I needed”

“to know that I responded, I helped, I did something, that’s enough”

Thank you to the people who made time to speak with us and be so open about their experiences. It was a humbling listening to them and what they did. It’s really helped inform our thinking for what we do next.

Keep checking out our blog to see what we’re learning and planning next.