- Insider uncovered joke comments by a senior fire-safety expert disparaging disabled people.
- Colin Todd sarcastically described disabled people dying in a fire while arguing against measures to protect them.
- Todd is part of the inquiry into the Grenfell Tower fire, and is paid by the UK Government for fire-safety advice.
A fire-safety expert taking part in the official inquiry into the blaze at Grenfell Tower wrote sarcastic jokes online about disabled people dying in fires.
Colin Todd is a prominent fire-safety expert in the UK, whose company drafted controversial official guidance suggesting that public housing did not require individualized plans to help disabled people escape in a fire.
The Grenfell fire in London in 2017 forced a national reckoning on fire safety. Seventy-two Grenfell residents died, due in part to unsafe flammable cladding material on the exterior and poor evacuation advice given to those inside.
Disability rights groups have criticized Todd’s guidance, and his position as an expert witness in analyzing the Grenfell Tower fire (in which many disabled people died), and also the comments discovered by Insider.
Todd’s comments were written in 2014, in a forum for fire-safety professionals. They came in a thread discussing whether building owners should be required to install special fire alarms for those less able to move and escape. Arguing against the idea, Todd wrote this fictional description of disabled people being alerted to a fire but unable to escape:
“And Brian is right, what fun we will have watching Rudetube videos of the poor disabled people crawling on their hands and knees down smoke filled corridors when the common parts fire alarm system operates to tell them to get out into the corridors because there is smoke in them.”
“it all promotes equality, because the able bodied people will have to go on their hands and knees too when the smoke layer gets too low, rather than staying in the safety of their flats.”
Speaking to Insider over email, Todd confirmed he was referring to “Rude Tube”, a TV show that ran from 2008 to 2017 aggregating comedic highlights from social media video sites.
In an email to Insider, Todd confirmed that he wrote the comments, but said they were sarcastic and had been taken out of context. His intention, he said, was to argue against the extra alarms, which he claimed would put disabled people at greater risk.
Todd pointed to an earlier post he was arguing against, which adopted a similarly flippant tone while arguing for the alarms to be present.
The anonymous user wrote: “Its important to tell people, who are unable to react, that they are in a burning building. We wouldn’t want them to safely sleep through a fire in the building. Where’s the fun in that?”
Todd told Insider he stood by what he said, writing an email to Insider saying “you are quite correct, of course, to confirm that I wrote these comments, as this is a fact.”
“The comments were intended to support a similar posting by another poster as a sarcastic rebuke of a suggestion that would have placed disabled (and other) residents at serious risk,” he added.
Todd explained that he was rebuking comments suggesting that you should not put fire alarms in common areas, which he said could mean disabled people would not be adequately alerted to a fire.
‘This comes down to whether or not we have the right to survive a fire’
Sarah Rennie, co-founder of the campaign group Claddag, which advocates for better fire safety measures for disabled people, told Insider: “We are sent these comments day after day by concerned people who read them. They speak to his mindset on how serious he thinks this issue is.”
“It’s not a joke,” Rennie said. “This is a really traumatic issue for us. And it’s not a laughing matter. This comes down to whether or not we have the right to survive a fire when all our neighbors are running out of the building or have heard the fire alarm.”
“We don’t have that privilege and we are making sure that our right to evacuate is being respected and enforced.”
Tanni Grey-Thompson, a member of the House of Lords, raised Todd’s comments in Parliament in early February, noting that she was “very concerned” and that they ought to be “interrogated.”
Todd’s advice on fire-safety, including for disabled people, has been endorsed at the highest level in the UK, and earned him an MBE award in 2020.
Guidance produced by his company, C.S. Todd & Associates, and circulated by UK officials, said it was “usually unrealistic” to develop what is known in the industry as “personal emergency evacuation plans” for disabled people in general-use housing. The advice featured in a 2011 government handbook and remained in use for 10 years before it was withdrawn in 2021, and replaced with blacked-out text pending an update.
Many local government sites still have the unredacted guidance on their site, such as Leicestershire Fire Service. The guidance states:
“In ‘general needs’ blocks of flats, it can equally be expected that a resident’s physical and mental ability will vary. It is usually unrealistic to expect landlords and other responsible persons to plan for this or to have in place special arrangements, such as ‘personal emergency evacuation plans’. Such plans rely on the presence of staff or others available to assist the person to escape in a fire.”
“… It is not realistic to expect such an approach to be adopted where there are disabled people and others requiring assistance in a ‘general needs’ block. Any attempts to keep information of this kind must be updated regularly as inaccurate information could potentially be harmful than no information.”
The phase one report from the Grenfell Fire inquiry found that advice for disabled people to “stay put” in a fire had failed.
According to Disability Rights UK, 15 of the 72 dead were disabled. The group said there were 37 disabled people in total in the building, giving them a survival rate of around 60%, far worse than able-bodied residents.
Despite the “stay put” guidance having failed at Grenfell, Todd stood by it in his expert witness report on the fire, wherein specialists are called to provide their expertise on an issue. Todd wrote that “a ‘stay put’ strategy is actually favorable to vulnerable people and consistent with the principles of equality.”
Potential conflict of interest
Advocates for the victims of the Grenfell fire have raised additional questions about Todd’s role as an expert witness. In March 2021, the industry publication Inside Housing reported that Todd had an apparent conflict of interest. His son was hired in 2019 as head of fire safety at the local authority responsible for Grenfell Tower.
Todd told Insider he had no comment on this.
In the report for the digital publication, Adrian Williamson QC, a judge who represented the bereaved, survivors, and residents of Grenfell at the inquiry, said “We do not agree with Mr Todd’s general approach and do not accept that he is an appropriate expert to guide the inquiry.”
Sal Brinton, another House of Lords member, said in a recent debate that many disabled people opposed the appointment.
He ‘doesn’t believe in evacuation plans for disabled people’
Claddag is pursuing a judicial review of the Home Office’s decision to award Todd the contract. Rennie, the Claddag founder, told Insider, “We don’t believe Mr. Todd is the appropriate author for this policy because he doesn’t believe in evacuation plans for disabled people.”
She also told the Disability News Service that “In awarding this contract, we believe that the home secretary has failed in her public sector equality duty towards disabled people.”
In a statement to Insider, the Home Office confirmed the existence of the judicial review case, and defended Todd’s appointment.
“The appointment of C.S. Todd & Associates to write fire safety guidance was conducted in accordance with due and proper process,” a spokesperson said. “There is strong governance in place, which is kept under regular review, to oversee the detail of the guidance so that it is as effective as possible at keeping people safe.”