AGAINST a dark night sky in the wee hours of a June morning, the fire that consumed the Grenfell Tower in London spread quickly from the fourth floor to the rest of the 24-storey building, with people inside. More than 80 are still missing. Can it happen here?
According to Fire and Rescue Department Malaysia assistant fire commissioner Wan Mohd Zaidi Wan Isa, that tragedy has spurred questions whether such an incident can happen here considering the many high-rise buildings in the country, especially in the Klang Valley.
“Questions have arisen as to how safe are our buildings,” says Wan Zaidi at a seminar in preparation for the coming 29th SEA Games and 9th Asean Para Games.
According to news reports, Grenfell Tower was refurbished recently to add more units for rent for the building owners. Two exits were reduced to one and combustible panels – known as cladding – were added for aesthetics.
The 120 units comprise one and two-bedrooms built in 1972 and completed in 1974, says Wan Zaidi.
These years are important. According to Wan Zaidi, in 1976, the Campbell Shopping Complex in Kuala Lumpur burned for about 30 hours as a result of faulty electrical wiring.
It was Malaysia’s first inferno and as a result of that, the Uniform Building By Laws 1984 (UBBL 1984) were enacted about a decade later. Although it was been amended in 2012, that set of legislation were based on the British legal system.
Soon after the Grenfell tragedy, the Malaysian Institute of Architects issued a statement that a similar building would not have complied with the fire safety requirements, and therefore, would not have be approved for construction in Malaysia post-1984.
According to its president Ezumi Harzani Ismail, under the UBBL 1984, a similar building in Malaysia will be required to have at least two “protected” or fire resistant staircases designed to carry the anticipated load. Two interlocking staircases within a single core – known as scissor staircases – are no longer accepted as two staircases.
“Every floor will be required to be designed as a compartment (fire resistant) floor with fire barrier to prevent fire spreading from floor to floor, both internally and externally.”
Ezumi says there are still other what he calls “passive” fire safety provisions which are built into the structure during the construction process as opposed to “active” provisions like the installation of smoke detectors, pressurised hydrants or hose reels on every floor and fire-resistant doors.
Again, as in “passive” measures, there is also a whole list of “active” measures.
The thing is, while such measures are noteworthy, there is a human dimension to every tragedy, says Wan Zaidi.
Two weeks ago, an apartment unit on the 13th floor of a public housing in Sentul, Kuala Lumpur caught fire as a result of faulty electrical wiring. The occupant had left for work and his neighbours broke the door down on seeing smoke coming from the unit. The fire was doused using a nearby hose reel.
Says the chairman of the management committee Zainuddin Majid: “Lucky thing the pressure was high enough and we managed to put out the fire before the fire men arrived.”
“Last year, we were not so lucky. A 14th floor unit caught fire after the occupant disconnected the gas head from the cylinder even as she was cooking. There was a huge explosion.
“She was careless. She should have switched off the gas first before she disconnected the gas head. The hose reel was not working. Vandalised.
“The fire blackened that unit and the unit above. Nobody died but both husband and wife were burned because the curtains in the kitchen caught fire.”
Today, those two blackened units are reminder but still, such incidents happen.
As one drives around the Klang Valley, offices, malls and high-rise residences rise above canopies of green.
Many of these buildings in the Klang Valley are modern and contemporary, their steel and glass structures shining spick and span on a sunny day. But amid this modernity are also less sightly buildings, most of them public housing with their walls darkened by fungus and years of neglect.
According to Wan Zaidi from the Fire Department, there are up to more than 200,000 buildings comprising retail, residential and offices at the end of December 2016 in the country. Until December 2016, the department had inspected up to 15,216 premises for their fire safety measures. These included clear emergency exits, functioning hose real and fire extinguishers and mall space uncluttered with kiosks.
Up to 2,194 premises were at risk and 9,699 notices were issued. Until June 2017, up to 8,070 premises were inspected but only 5,235 – or 65% of the premises – were issued with Fire Certificates (or FCs), an annual certification that these properties were complying with fire safety measures.
Says Wan Zaidi: “Up to 2,835 premises (35%) were not issued FCs.”
Wan Zaidi says these non-compliant premises are given time to improve on their fire safety measures. They will be charged in court if they do not comply with the measures. According to the Urban Wellbeing, Housing and Local Government Minister Tan Sri Noh Omar, some 235 building owners were charged in court and fined a total of RM479,260 for failing to adhere to the notices.
How safe are our hospitals?
The safety issue involves all categories of buildings, from residences, offices, malls, hotels and hospitals and other forms of properties. Privately owned units are excluded as the onus falls on the owners and management committees to keep their equipment in working order.
In October 2016, six patients were killed when a fire broke out at the intensive care unit of the Sultanah Aminah Hospital in Johor. A month later, a fire broke out at Ipoh’s Raja Permaisuri Bainun hospital.
According to Kuala Lumpur Fire and Rescue Department director Khirudin Drahman, there are about 20 private hospitals and nine government hospitals.
“The UBBL 1984 came about after years of deliberation. It is pointless to go through such a long process only to have some building owners complying while others ignore our notices because they think it is unimportant, even to the point of being charged in court,” he says.
Khirudin says the Grenfell inferno occurred because various safety measures were ignored although the occupants raised doubts about the safety of the structure. Ignoring the political, economic and social factors alluded to that incident, based strictly on what happened, Khirudin says he contacted some people in UK about it.
“It was summer. The units did not have air-conditioners and people slept with the windows open. This allowed the fire to spread, coupled with the combustible cladding and other factors.”
Khirudin says a fire occurs because when three elements are present – heat, fuel and oxygen. The faulty freezer provided the sparks.In each of tragedy, Khirudin says it is the human factor that create the conditions for a fire to take place. So switch off eletrical points when not in used, he suggests. And check the wiring after a certain length of time.
“These human factors can be broken down to A, B and C. A stands for attitudes, B for behaviour and C conditions.”
In Mont’Kiara not long ago, a mother was using the microwave oven and left the high-rise unit. Her son left his cigarette lighter on the microwave and went to sleep. The unit caught fire.
“Fire is no respecter of persons. It does not matter if you are rich or poor, young or old.
“So we ourselves create the conditions,” says Khirudin.
To be sure, an inferno may be a one-off event, but the conditions which brought it about are not, says Khirudin.
If the UBBL 1984 came about after the 1976 Campbell inferno, what of the many high-rise buildings that were built before 1984?
It is at this juncture that the Fire Certificate kicks in. According to Malaysian Institute of Architects president Ezumi, “it is wise to consider any building constructed before 1984 as old and require compulsory fire safety audit and after passing this audit, the Fire Certificate is issued for the premises. For example, high rise buildings are required to have two stair cases as emergency exits. Pre-1984 buildings may not satisfy this requirement.
In commercial buildings such as malls, hotels, hospitals and factories, in addition to “passive” and “active” fire safety features, owners are required to undergo annual fire safety audit before they are issued with a Fire Certificate by the Fire department even if they are new buildings.
Under UBBL 1984, it is not compulsory for residential buildings to have fire detection system inside the apartment unit. These are required in public areas like lift lobbies, cafeteria and mechanical and electrical services rooms. They are a requirement in high rise commercial and office buildings. Serviced apartments fall into this commercial category.
Khirudin says it is impossible to secure “absolute safety” but being vigilant and being equipped is wisdom itself.
“Unfortunately, when we talk to building owners, they think that installing fire safety features is a cost.
“Safety is an investment, not a cost because at the end of the day, you are protecting your investment,” says Khirudin.
Fire safety measures, he says, can comprise up to a fifth or a quarter of total building cost for a commercial building.
“It is like insurance. You buy insurance not to profit from it, but as a compensation in event of a tragedy,” says Khirudin.