Fire does not respect status or wealth

  • Property
  • Saturday, 29 Jul 2017

After the disaster: A general view of the Grenfell Tower, which was destroyed in a fire, in London on July 15. — Reuters

INEQUALITY has many facades. While it is often measured in monetary terms, there are different forms like social inequality, political and economic imbalances and so on.

The stark reality is that inequality seems the most obvious and painful in public housing. While the poor, weak and marginalised may fight against perceptions of injustice, real or otherwise, and are ignored, there are those who do not know – or do not know what to do – when they have fallen by the wayside as they try to climb the economic ladder.

It is against this background that housing, coupled with education, is so empowering – and important – in order to raise the standard of some of our public housing. Only with such empowerment can a society lift itself to make continual progress.

As the government focuses on boosting the supply of affordable housing - as with other countries around the world today - it is important to build units which can be sustainably maintained, with thoughtful planning and designs bearing in mind the state of some of our public housing today and how they have degenerated over the years to be in the current state. They must not be fire traps.

While housing is one aspect, the other is density. As our buildings go higher - and higher - be it residences or office buildings, the local authorities, developers, architects and designers have the responsibility to make people feel safe in them.

But the onus does not fall on them solely. Kuala Lumpur Fire and Rescue Department director Khirudin Drahman in his paper says local and federal authorities, the developers and their contractors, owners, inspectors and occupants are all stakeholders.

“The developer and owner may no longer be there, but you are the occupant after all,” says Khirudin, who has made it a point to teach his children how to take care of themselves.

“Rely on yourself,” he quips.

When you stay in a hotel in a foreign country, for example, it is your duty to ask where the emergency exits are located and it is the responsibility of the hotel personnel to tell you. In the same way, when you are an occupant, it is your duty to know where the emergency exits are located and the equipment needed to fight a fire.

Khirudin says Malaysia has more than 200,000 high-rise buildings and only 14,000 fire personnel, which is why the department encourages the setting up of Emergency and Rescue Teams in companies and the public service.

In time to come, the Klang Valley will be home to some of the world’s tallest buildings - the 106-storey Exchange 106, previously known as Signature Tower by Indonesia’s Mulia group in the Tun Razak Exchange and the proposed 118-storey PNB118 by Permodalan Nasional Bhd.

While all are offices, the Klang Valley also has high-rise residences that go up 40 storeys or more.

The future of high-rise buildings, therefore, rests on making people feel safe working and living in them. In an area as diverse as the Klang Valley, with pockets of the very rich and very poor, polarisation may pull the social fabric further apart. This is obvious during visits to some public housing areas in Kuala Lumpur. It is against this backdrop that Khirudin says that a fire does not respect its victims. Poor, rich, young or old, we all play a part to keep the place we live and work in safe.

It is, therefore, sad to see the degree of vandalism that exists in some of our public housing. Public property such as lifts and fire-fighting equipment are continually vandalised by the very people who live there.

Says public housing management committee chairman Zainuddin Majid: “I don’t know what’s wrong with some of these youths. We had two new lifts and within months, one of them was no longer functional. They wrecked the button panel by burning the buttons with cigarettes. They do not consider the consequences of people having to walk up to the 16th or 17th floor.

“We have told them many times not to vandalise public property, but it is ignored.”

These are some of the conditions that create an environment for future tragedies to take place, as when a unit on the 14th floor was on fire and the hose reel was not functional.

Calling himself the “ketua kampung” or village head, he says this has resulted in over-crowding in the other lift, which may fall apart because of over-crowding. And the whole cycle begins again, year after year.

This is why Khirudin puts a premium on building awareness: “Preventing a fire from happening, protecting people and property, preparing for such an incident, responding to it and recovering from it.”

“Authorities, designers, builders, inspectors and occupiers – all are stakeholders.”

The Campbell Complex fire in 1976, the 1993 collapsed Highland Towers in Ampang, and the Johor Sultanah Aminah Hospital and the Ipoh Raja Permaisuri Bainun Hospital incidences last year were all documented. However, there are cases which are not, but this does not give stakeholders the licence to be lax, says Khirudin.

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