Could tech leaders have assisted in the Grenfell inferno rescue?

First-world problems can wait.

By Kathy Li
June 26, 2017


THE LONG HOT day was finally over. “I’ll carry on with it tomorrow.” As people succumbed to the comfort of their own beds in the haven they called home, their minds wandered with ambitions for the next day. Unbeknownst to them at the time, they would wake up to a life that would no longer be the same -- if they woke up at all.

Just before 1 AM on June 14th, a fire broke out at Grenfell Tower in west London and quickly took hold. Too much too quickly.

England’s biggest inferno of the century scarred not only all four facades of the building, but also everyone’s heart -- especially Grenfell residents and their families’.

What was supposed to be the safest place for families turned into a disaster zone, leaving children and adults homeless overnight. Hard-earned possessions went up in flames. Loved ones lost their lives without being given much chance to say goodbye.

Tragedies like this make us reflect upon the way we live, the way some of us whine on about just about anything -- most of which first-world problems...

Oh yes, I want to support my local mom-and-pop stores. I really do. BUT they are all closed by 8 PM and that’s way too early. I’m always busy before 8 PM.

I step out of my flat at 9 PM and I instantly find myself in a dilemma. If I turn right I’ll get to my local Tesco in under two minutes. BUT they don’t carry the type of microwave meals that I like. I could theoretically take a left and head to the nearest Waitrose instead. BUT their ice cream selection is simply laughable.

What do you mean there are too many but’s coming out of my mouth?

Thankfully, our tech giants saw my pain points, which turn out to be many others’ pain points as well. It’s good to know that I am not the only one.

Drones promising to deliver groceries within two hours after my intrepid mouse clicks? Yes, please! If this isn’t proof of how technology is advancing to make our lives better, I don’t know what else is.

The only pet peeve I have now, is that 120 minutes is still too long of a wait for this tired, hungry soul. We are living in the age of “everything, now” -- where we have grown increasingly impatient of waiting. Wouldn’t it be nice if the digital lords could shave off a few extra minutes from the delivery process here and there?

Well, consider my agnostic prayers answered! Over at the impeccably built distribution centers, patrolling the floors are smart robots capable of picking up items for my order. Not only are the bots fast, they almost never get tired -- and thus rarely make mistakes.

As we applaud the technological innovations that allow us to streamline everyday tasks and hence focus on more important matters, the Grenfell tragedy prompts new questions: What truly matters? What are the most pressing problems to solve in real life?

Make no mistake, it is local councils and builders’ ultimate responsibility to ensure that all safety standards are met in buildings. Responsible entities cannot -- and should not -- get away with their appalling measures such as deciding on the construction materials used, neglecting the importance of functional fire alarms and sprinkler systems, etc.

That being said, under the circumstances, could the tech community have done more to help?

I will never forget eyewitnesses’ accounts of how small children were thrown out of windows. It was also reported that some people were seen to have jumped.

Two days after the fire broke out, some unconventional news images surfaced -- showing dogs with heat-proof boots assisting firefighters at the scene. These remarkable canines are lighter than humans and can cover a large area quickly. Nevertheless, as much as the extra help is immensely appreciated by all, let’s not lose sight of our responsibility as human beings to keep these dogs safe. They are not invincible. Period.

Machines, on the other hand, are more robust in certain types of emergency situations.

Speaking of which, I have also seen sporadic images of drones being deployed near the tower block. I wonder if they were able to offer much additional assistance that was desperately needed in the incident. But in any case, it’s a well-meaning start.

Tech enterprises, what's on your roadmaps for the future? Do we already have systems -- be that drones or robots -- that are capable of assisting people affected in disasters like the Grenfell fire in a more timely manner? And if not, given recent technological advancements, how hard would it be to develop said systems?

I understand. These kinds of systems may not necessarily be as profitable as investors and executives would like. Not to mention that they would likely be costly to develop. But we can’t really put a price on lives now, can we?