Overcrowding is a serious fire hazard, says former Fire and Rescue DG

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  • Tuesday, 12 Apr 2016

A flat roof top illegally converted to a hostel which caught fire last year in Jinjang. The many bed frames found in this building indicates the overcrowding of tenants.

IF HOUSES and buildings are found to be fire hazards, action can be taken under existing laws.

StarMetro had recently highlighted the growing problem of houses turned into hostels and spoke to several fire experts on the issue.

Ensuring safety

Fire Prevention Council Malaysia national chairman and former Fire and Rescue Department director general Datuk Soh Chai Hock, who is also Institution of Fire Engineers Malaysia founding president, said there were laws to prevent problems that might arise from unapproved renovations.

The Uniform Building By-Law and the Fire Services Act 1988 spell out the laws necessary to ensure a building is safe for occupancy.

“Based on the Fire Services Act, under the Abatement of Fire Hazards section, it is stated that fire-hazard abatement notice could be issued by the Fire and Rescue Department director-general to the unit owner.

“If the premises is found to be a fire hazard, the owner must fix it as he is required to abate the fire hazard,” Soh said.

A flat roof top illegally converted to a hostel which caught fire last year in Jinjang. The many bed frames found in this building indicates the overcrowding of tenants.
The many bedframes found in the building indicated that it was overcrowded.

He said the local authorities had the power to put a stop to or prevent illegal renovations through stricter enforcement.

He added that there were enough laws in place but pro-active enforcement was needed.

“When a house is on fire, it can get as hot as 1,500°C.

“A domestic oven only gets up to 450°C,” said Soh.

He said houses converted into hostels without approval would not be safe and the occupants would be in danger of fire.

“If the renovations are approved, there will be facilities in place to reduce the risk.

“When a house becomes a hostel, all the fire equipment such as alarm system, emergency lighting and smoke detectors must be in place.

“The owners of the units can be taken to court if these measures are not found on the premises.”

He said the local authorities should make it clear how many people could stay in a given property.

“You should not have 30 people in a terrace house.

“When you open your private house to the public, it becomes a hostel and the Uniform Building by-laws would apply.

“It is different if it is one single family with many family members staying there,” he said.

Kuala Lumpur Fire and Rescue Department director Khirudin Drahman advised property owners not to add to the fire risks in their premises by allowing overcrowding.

Kuala Lumpur Fire and Rescue Department director Khirudin Drahman
Khirudin said that home insurance played an important role in promoting fire safety awareness.

Compliance is key

When buildings are new, the local authorities play a great role in ensuring the Uniform Building By-Laws 1984 were followed.

This includes even the thickness of the walls, which will help contain the fire instead of allowing it to spread.

However, building owners must avoid unsafe behaviour and conditions at all times to prevent fire risks in the years to come.

Based on statistics provided by the Kuala Lumpur Fire and Rescue Department, there were 715 recorded cases of fire involving buildings last year, with the most occurring at flats (154).

There were 115 cases in condominiums and apartments while terrace houses and squatter areas accounted for 80 and 16 respectively.

Khirudin said most buildings constructed before 1984 did not comply with the legal requirements, adding to the risk of fire in the event of overcrowding.

According to him, commercial buildings were better monitored because there was a requirement for yearly inspections by the fire department.

“In Kuala Lumpur, some 1,000 buildings are required to renew their fire certificates on a yearly basis.

“We will assess everything from the fire hose reel to the fire exit stairways,” he said.

Since 2015, the fire department had also started inspecting flats, apartments and condominiums to ensure fire safety equipment and infrastructure is in accordance with the safety standards.

However, the fire department does not have the power to access private houses but it could carry out inspections when requested by the local authorities and those who flouted the law could be hauled to court.

“This would be a time consuming process and is best avoided.

“Safety is important. You cannot turn a private house into a hostel as that will increase the risks.

“You cannot put monetary value on lives, so do not add to the risk just because you want to collect a lot of rent,” said Khirudin.

He said most foreigners from the blue collar sector were not well versed in the safety aspects.

This year, the fire department is actively inspecting commercial buildings such as hotels, budget hotels and backpackers’ lodges.

Insurance matters

Khirudin said home insurance providers could also play a role in promoting awareness on the do’s and don’ts on residential property.

Based on a statement from General Insurance Association of Malaysia corporate communications manager SQ Kuan, if a house owner has approval for renovations, he only needs to inform his insurer of the renovation works and the approval for his property to be covered.

“The coverage is based on the verbal and written confirmation provided by the insured at the point of entering the contract and any changes must be notified.

“If the property has been altered without approval and without informing the insurer, then the claim will be rejected in the event of a loss,” said Kuan.

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