MOST fires take place in residential spaces, so for society to become fire resilient, experts say it has to start with the individual at home.
Fire safety experts believe the way forward to prevent major fires is through education, introducing Fire Safety Week and implementing frequent fire audits by fire engineers on commercial buildings as well as residential premises.
StarMetro spoke to former fire department director-general Datuk Dr Soh Chai Hock, professional architect and lecturer Iznny Ismail, Fire Engineers (UK) Malaysia branch vice-president Tay Hao Giang and Institution of Masters In Disaster and Emergency Management Malaysia vice-president Selva Kumar Tangavelu.
Soh said it was important to nurture a fire safety culture and build a fire resilient society. He said those in leadership need to create public awareness on fire safety and enforce fire regulations.
“Building owners, architects and engineers who built the building, and tenants at a premises must all be responsible for fire safety,” he said.
He suggested that the Urban Wellbeing, Housing and Local Government Ministry (KPKT) designate a national “Fire Safety Week.”
“The ministry has the authority and budget for such a programme. It can bring both the government and private sectors together to educate the public on fire safety and prevention,” added the fire safety veteran with 39 years experience.
Soh strongly believes in educating the young about fire safety and risks, and they will pass on the knowledge to their family members and peers.
“A Fire Safety Week can encourage all sectors to carry out related activities such as a building safety audit, children can be taught about fire hazards and the dos and don’ts, and hospitals, malls and even families can conduct fire drills.
“Community leaders, housing developers and factory owners should audit their spaces. Bear in mind that most fires occur in houses because the industrial areas practise higher fire safety standards,” he highlighted.
He said it was also important for the fire department, police and ambulance services within an area to be familiar with one another as this would smoothen the communication in case of a crisis.
Soh said laws in the country were adequate but there must be stricter enforcement when there was a breach in fire safety. He said those responsible must be held accountable so that others would be on high alert to avoid committing the same mistakes.
He said that after the fire at Grenfell Tower, a 24-storey residential housing block in London, which claimed 80 lives, a report containing preventive steps was presented in the UK parliament, and he hoped that such a report would be discussed in the Malaysian Parliament too.
Soh said it was time our city streets incorporated fire lanes.
“Where is our fire lane? Most developed countries have it. Our firefighters need the fire lane to arrive quickly at locations especially during rush hours. This lane should be in the centre of the roads,” he explained.
He also highlighted the need to maximise the use of available resources and skills among the people in a neighbourhood.
He said when a fire broke out, the first responders should be those from the neighbourhood.
“When those on the ground know what to do, it will reduce the risk of the fire spreading.
“We have many retired firefighters and resourceful people around us. Residents associations can rope them in to train fellow residents and even the neighbourhood security guards on what to do in case of fire.
“Conduct fire patrols, reskill and upskill yourselves in fire safety. If the neighbourhood can afford it, get a van stocked with fire-fighting equipment ready to respond before the fire engine arrives.
“Everyone must learn basic survival skills in a fire, create a house safety plan and impart the knowledge to your children,” he advised.
With adequate knowledge, skills and proactive measures, the public could minimise fire risks and contain a fire until professional help arrived, he added.
Soh said residential properties had more flammable items such as cooking gas cylinders, mattresses and curtains.
“It is important to make the house fire-proof and to instal smoke detectors as well as fire extinguishers.”
He pointed out that 70% of fire prevention came from knowledge, skills and proactive measures.
The responsibility of conducting fire audits at least once a year falls on the building owners,” he added.
Professionals with the relevant knowledge should offer pro bono services to inspect fire safety at religious schools and welfare organisations, said Iznny.
She said corporate social responsibility programmes was one way for experts to help create building safety plans for those in need.
She said the Uniform Building By-Laws 1984 had more stringent requirements for highrises and towers.
“However, some two-storey buildings could be a shelter for many occupants and fire safety was equally important here.
“Hostels located in a two-storey building must be equipped with fire hose. The system is expensive and some building owners may compromise and have it on just one floor.
“Small organisations may find it expensive to carry our maintenance work as well as cope with the yearly renewal of items such as the ABC powder for the fire extinguisher,” she noted.
Cladding is commonly used for insulation purposes in countries with harsh weather. However in a tropical country like ours, cladding is normally used for ecstatic reason, said Tay.
On Feb 13, the Employees Provident Fund building in Petaling Jaya caught fire, engulfing about 40% of the six-storey building. It was speculated that the cladding panels used on the exterior of the building in Jalan Gasing caught fire.
Tay said in European countries, cladding was used to reduce heating bills while in the Middle East, buildings were insulated to cut down on the use of cooling system.
He said that while builders could still use cladding, they must be careful about the material selected.
“There are two types of cladding, which are combustible and non-combustible. Building owners must be informed of the type used. Contractors must always engage with fire engineers and carry out fire safety tests before using a certain building material,” he cautioned.
He said in Liverpool in the UK, fire incidents dropped drastically within two years when smoke detectors were installed and the same could be applied here.
“Fighting a fire is the last thing you want. Preventing a fire should be everyone’s top priority,” he iterated.
Selva Kumar thinks fire safety inspections work better through persuasion.
He said building owners, architects and even interior designers should not regard fire safety audits as a fault-finding process.
“Building audits must be seen as an opportunity to improve on shortcomings,” he said.
Based on his experience, he said buildings might have fire sprinklers but they might be clogged with corrosion.
“A maintenance culture must be upheld to minimise fire risks,” he emphasised.
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