MICHAEL CLIFFORD: The law is an ass-covering scheme for dodgy developers

Maria O'Callaghan is one of those living at Longboat Quay on Sir John Rogerson's Quay inDublin. Picture: Fergal Phillips

All the evidence suggests that when the Longboat Quay scandal first arose, the main focus was to keep things under wraps, reports Michael Clifford

We’re into the ass-covering phase in Longboat Quay. Everybody with a stake in the good ship Longboat is scurrying to ensure that no blame in the developing scandal ends up in their particular quarter.

The main man, developer Bernard McNamara, has gone to ground. He doesn’t have to worry about covering his ass, as the law has done that for him. The corporate vehicle he used to build the 299-unit block in Dublin’s docklands has expired into receivership. And with its corpse lies corporate responsibility for the scandal.

There are a number of State bodies which have questions to answer. On Monday, this newspaper published details of a fire safety notice recommendation made by a senior officer in Dublin Fire Brigade in May 2014. He compiled his report after a detailed inspection of the building.

The recommendation was that a notice be served on the basis of a dozen serious deficiencies, which rendered the development — made up of two blocks — dangerous. This would have been the first step towards evacuation if remedial work couldn’t be started immediately.

The deficiencies also had major repercussions for rank and file firefighters in the event of a blaze. They would be exposed to dangers about which they would theretofore not have been informed.

The chief fire officer rejected the recommendation. Yesterday, the fire brigade responsed to the Irish Examiner’s story. It said that instead of a notice a decision was made that a “full and comprehensive fire risk assessment” be carried out. The report it had in its possession was pretty comprehensive, yet the response was to order another report.

It went on to say that: “Following agreement on these measures, the chief fire officer decided to defer serving the fire safety notice. Letters were issued to the owner/occupiers in this regard.”

Instead of proceeding towards evacuation or immediate remedial works, a decision was taken to sort out the deficient fire alarms and, in the meantime, have fire marshals patrol the two blocks 24/7.

On the face of it, this might appear like a reasonable response. Peer behind the spin and a major question keeps popping up. When serious fire safety concerns were discovered, was the imperative to act expeditely in the name of resident safety, or to keep everything under wraps?

The first item on the agenda should have been informing those whose lives were now potentially in danger. The fire brigade asserts that this was done. Not so. Some communication was made with residents at the time through the Dublin Docklands Development Authority (DDDA), but no effort that would be commensurate with the seriousness of the situation.

Many, if not most, of the 600-plus residents were left in the dark. Any communication made was done so in the casual manner of minor notices for residents. And none were informed, as inferred by the fire brigade statement, that a fire safety notice had been deferred.

Some residents did not know anything concrete about the dangers until an information meeting last Tuesday night, nearly 17 months after the fire brigade report.

Fire marshals were installed last year, but most residents were unaware of their function. At least five residents have informed this newspaper that when any of the marshals were approached about what they were doing, a coy or evasive response was given.

“I was told by a couple of them on more than one occasion that they were extra security for the building,” one resident said. “I had a friend over from America and we joked that his must be the most secure apartment block in Dublin.”

For the record, when I visited Longboat Quay last January, and spent two hours examining common areas and stairwells, I did not encounter a single fire marshal, or anybody fitting such a description.

The recommendation for a fire safety notice last year included the detail that services behind the walls of the buildings were installed in a substandard state.

“Fire separation between apartments and adjoining service risers in common areas is inadequate in respect of service penetration and absence of compartment wall construction,” the report stated. This was just one of many references to shortcomings in the services provision.

Yet, according to Dublin City Council, its building regulations department was not informed of these issues last year when discovered. (So the council told this newspaper last February).

The fire brigade discovers major problems within a building — apart from immediate fire concerns — and the relevant arm of the local authority never hears of it? We do know that the local authority was aware of the major problems by June of last year, so how come nobody from building regulation was sent down to check things out?

That could be down to a lack of communication, but it may be that a little hush hush was regarded as the best way to proceed.

The recommendation for a fire safety notice provided three main reasons why one should be served:

  • Lobby at each floor not provided with 1.5 sq metre automatic smoke vent;
  • The fire resistance of the stair enclosure at the junction with the service riser enclosure at ground and first floor is not adequate;
  • Building services installation within service riser enclosures accessed from common areas not adequately sealed or fire-stopped.

Irrespective of the measures ordered by the fire brigade after this report was compiled, none of the above deficiencies have yet been addressed. If a fire were to occur, the upgraded alarm system would alert everybody in reasonably good time.

The dangers laid out above, however, would still pertain. Fire would still spread rapidly. The system of smoke vents is still inadequate. And firefighters would still be faced with enhanced dangers.

All of these items are expected to be addressed in the remedial work that is now at issue. If the money can be found, the building will eventually be rendered safe.

But all the evidence suggests that when this matter first arose, the main focus was not the safety of residents, but the imperative to keep things under wraps because of the scandal and particularly the financial cost that would accrue.

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