999 operator told Grenfell Tower resident ‘I can’t really advise you’

A Grenfell Tower fire survivor was told by an operator she could not advise her what to do when she rang 999 reporting smoke on the 22nd floor.

Naomi Li, who lived on the second highest floor of the tower, called the emergency services at 1.30am but the operator did not explore possible escape routes with her.

She later managed to escape through thick smoke down 22 flights of stairs.

Her neighbours, who she had been sheltering with when she made the call, all died.

The transcript of the call, the 33rd received that night, was shown at the public inquiry on Thursday.

In it, Ms Li repeatedly tells the operator there is smoke and she has taken refuge in a neighbour’s flat.

After the operator starts to end the call, she interjects: “The flat? Sorry – do we stay in the flat?”

The operator replies: “Well, I obviously can’t really advise you, but I’ll let the firemen know you’re there, OK?”

While Ms Li survived, her neighbours who stayed – Nadia Choucair, 33, her husband Bassem Choukair, 40, their three children Mierna, 13, Fatima, 11, and Zainab, three, along with their grandmother Sirria, 60 – all died.

London Fire Brigade (LFB) policy guidance states that a person is usually safest to remain in their flat, unless affected by smoke, heat or fire.

Joanne Smith, senior operations manager for the LFB, said she changed the advice callers were being given from “stay-put” to evacuate if able, within 15 minutes of her arrival at the control room.

The inquiry heard the volume of emergency calls was so high that operators departed from usual practice as they attempted to speak to people on the lines as quickly as possible.

Ms Smith, who arrived at 2.15am, estimated operators took around 100 calls over an hour. There were a total of 344 Grenfell-related calls received over the whole night.

Richard Millett QC, counsel for the inquiry, asked if Ms Smith felt the operator’s failure to explore with the caller the possibility of escape was a “deficiency” in the response.

She replied: “I wasn’t there at the time but I can only imagine the situation and I really would believe that the individual knew they were on the 22nd floor, that the fire was on the fourth floor and that actually there might be callers lower down that did need fire survival guidance help.

“And actually they would have also been concerned because they wouldn’t have known what was going on in the building, that actually had they asked them to leave and evacuate they would have put them into a more dangerous situation by sending them down a stairwell past the fourth floor, which was on fire.”

Mr Millett went on: “Would it be usual practice in the control room to leave matters there or would it be usual practice in the control room to explore means of safe escape?”

She answered: “It would have been usual practice to go on and explore means of escape, but that would be if we were receiving one or two calls and not the large volume of calls for help that we were receiving on that night.”

- Press Association

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