Perfect fire drills mask ever-present dangers
by Thu Huong
The image of a helicopter approaching the top of the high-rise Diamond Plaza building in HCM City was spattered across the front page of a major newspaper last week.
In one of the biggest fire drills held in a Vietnamese city in recent years, two helicopters were used along with 78 fire trucks, 2,800 participants, 10 specially-trained dogs, and various other emergency equipment.
The scenario was that rescuers had to evacuate about 2,000 people from a restaurant on the building's fifth floor after a gas leak broke out.
All were soon rescued through glass windows on the fifth, 13th, and other floors by firefighters who used stretchers, ladders, ropes, and escape chutes.
The result, obviously, was perfect.
But yesterday, a major fire also broke at around 4am at a factory in HCM City's Tan Tao Industry Park, which took firefighters five hours to tackle the blaze.
The fire may have started due to a short circuit, according to the initial investigation.
Fortunately none of the company's 8,000 workers were injured, but two floors and a block were completely destroyed.
Notably, it was the second fire at the company in the past year.
Only a few workers were inside the building because it was early morning. However, what would have happened if it was during the day when thousands of workers could have been trapped inside? If needed, could similar resources to those used in the fire drill be quickly mobilised?
No one wants to picture such scenarios, but unlike fire drills, we can't choose or predict the outbreak of a real fire.
Fire prevention and fighting are on top of the agenda for authorities at all levels. However, in many cases, response and prevention measures do not meet our expectations.
According to statistics from the Department of Fire Prevention and Fighting under the Public Security Ministry, the number of reported fires nationwide exceeded 1,420 in the first six months which killed 22 people and caused property damage of about VND524 billion (US$25 million).
This means that there's an average of nearly eight reported fires on a daily basis.
In those six months, there were 16 major fires which already caused the more than VND460 billion lost. In 2012, more than 2,000 fires were reported and 70 people were killed.
The growing urban population has also increased the risk of fires at gas stations, especially in crowded residential areas. This was evident in the gas station fire on Tran Hung Dao Street in Ha Noi back in June, which injured 12 people in a fire that raged for hours and that the response to the fire was criticised for being too slow.
Following that case, serious talk and debate centered on moving or closing the petrol stations which are not in the city's development plan out of residential areas, but so far nothing has been done.
The plan is just talk in the air and we have to visit these stations on a daily basis without knowing clearly the risk.
In one of the discussions at the National Assembly meeting in late May, Pham Quang Nghi, Politburo member and Secretary of the Ha Noi Municipal Party Committee, said Ha Noi could potentially buy helicopters to meet the demand for fire fighting in high-rise buildings.
According to Nghi, Ha Noi's fire equipment can only reach the 39th floor so now it's extremely difficult to deal with fire situations up high.
However, in a July meeting of the Ha Noi People's Committee, Nguyen Van Son, deputy director of Ha Noi Fire Prevention and Fighting Department, said Ha Noi would not use helicopters because of the smoke that could deter the vision of the helicopters' pilot and it could be dangerous using helicopters in such cases.
So which course is right?
The fire at the gas station in Ha Noi also sparked further debate on amending the Law on Fire Prevention and Fighting.
The law was born 10 years ago, but with the rising population, economic growth and urbanisation, it's outdated. While the newly amended law would not be effective until July 1, 2014, preventive measures on what we can do must be done now.
The lawmakers pointed out that the amended law needed to clearly provide the legal responsibility of those who are found to have initiated a fire. In many cases, fires can be caused by the careless actions of individuals.
So far, such individuals are rarely prosecuted.
Outdated facilities and skill-training for firefighters must also be improved and authorities must clarify the kind of resources available at various levels and in what situations can they be used.
In residential areas, residents must be aware of fire risks through raising-awareness programmes, since many people feel that the responsibility for preventing fires lies with the authorities and firefighters, not themselves.
Urban development and zoning plans must be tied in with regulations on fire prevention, enforcing guidelines in fire prevention and equipment for contractors of residential areas and high-rise buildings.
A mechanism is needed to eliminate the buildings and apartments that do not meet fire prevention criteria.
Teaching fire prevention skills should also be informative enough for students to learn and understand at schools.
Without doing all of these things, fire drills aren't good enough. It's what we do in the real cases. — VNS