|A water sprinkler system is tested at an apartment building in Tân Bình District. — VNS Photo Chí Công
HCM CITY — Fire-fighting police in districts throughout HCM City are working with investors and managers of apartment buildings to strengthen fire-prevention measures at all high-rises and apartment buildings in the city, following a fire at the Carina Plaza apartment complex in District 8 that killed 13 people and injured 50 on March 23.
Since March 24, fire-fighting police in Tân Bình District, for example, have been checking fire alarms, emergency sprinkler systems, and other fire-prevention devices at many high-rises.
In Tân Phú District, residents at the Phú Thạnh apartment building were informed about a similar check which took place from March 26 to 28. On March 25, firefighting police engaged in fire-prevention and fire-safety training at the building.
On March 24, residents were shown how to escape down the stairs and exist safely during a drill at an older apartment building on Nguyễn Thị Minh Khai Street in District 3.
Trần Thế Thuận, chairman of the District 1 People’s Committee, said that fire-prevention systems at 161 apartment buildings in the district had recently been checked.
“If this fire had been discovered quickly, a small fire extinguisher could have put it out,” he said.
An initial investigation showed that the apartment complex’s fire alarms and the sprinkler system did not operate.
“Residents only knew about the fire thanks to shouts from others,” Trương Huy Bằng, who was living on the 12th floor of the building, told Việt Nam News Agency.
The HCM City Police on March 26 started criminal proceedings in the case of the Carina Paza fire.
City leaders have asked the District 8 People’s Committee to work with the investor of the Carina Plaza apartment complex to provide assistance to victims and residents, including fees for room rentals.
|A fire alarm is tested at an apartment building in Tân Bình District.— VNS Photo Chí Công
HCM City Party Committee Secretary Nguyễn Thiện Nhân has asked fire-fighting police to submit a report on the status of fire-prevention equipment and procedures at the Carina Plaza building.
More fire drills and guidance on how to exit buildings safely should be carried out at the building, he said.
The Ministry of Construction is also working with the city’s Department of Construction to check all apartment buildings in the city and require buildings’ investors to solve all shortcomings.
The ministry has urged developers, builders and partners to follow technical standards for construction of apartment buildings.
Sr Lt Col Nguyễn Thanh Hưởng, acting director of the Fire Fighting and Prevention Police Department, said the department would provide further guidance to residents on rescue methods and ways of escape.
He urged the public to report violations of fire regulations and to call 114 to report a fire.
According to the department’s figures, seven apartment buildings in the city that do not follow fire-safety regulations have people living in them.
Last year, a department report found that several apartment buildings in the city had yet to be checked by the department but investors had continued to allow people to buy apartments before or during construction.
Of the buildings that were checked, the department found that many had fire equipment but they were not used properly, and alarms did not operate, according to the report.
The department noted in its report that it faced challenges because the radius of operation is too wide between fire-fighting police divisions in the city’s 24 districts.
Last year, the city’s total of six firefighting divisions were responsible for managing two districts each, and it took time for fire trucks to access fires, according to the department.
Speaking at a meeting held yesterday, Nguyễn Thành Phong, chairman of the municipal People’s Committee, said that fire-safety activities had been carried out in the city, but effectiveness had been low.
Today, the committee is holding a conference on fire prevention and fighting at apartment buildings and high-rises.
Võ Văn Hoan, chief of the committee’s secretariat, said that HCM City Party Committee Secretary Nguyễn Thiện Nhân had ordered a review and the publication of a list of apartment buildings, to be classified as fire-safe, less safe or unsafe.
“This announcement will help investors pay more attention to fire safety and residents can also take the initiative in improving things,” Hoan added.
Low public awareness
Residents in apartment buildings have a low awareness about fire-prevention regulations and procedures, according to Lê Xuân Minh of the fire-fighting police in Tân Phú District.
He said exit doors should not be blocked with stones because smoke can pass through the openings to higher floors, leading to suffocation.
Hưởng of the Fire Fighting and Prevention Police Department said that suffocation was the cause of death for 11 of the 13 ill-fated victims at the Carina Plaza fire.
An inspection also showed that cigarette ash was found in the buildings’ basement, which had more than 1,500 parked motorbikes and cars.
In other buildings in the city, far too many cars and motorbikes are parked in small spaces, such as in the Phú Thạnh Building in Tân Phú District. This can block fire trucks from entering the building grounds, Minh said.
|A fire extinguisher is installed at an apartment building in Tân Phú District. — VNS Photo Gia Lộc
Rush for fire-prevention devices
After the deadly Carina Plaza fire, many city residents began looking for high-quality face masks, blankets, clothes and drop ladders.
A resident living on the 10th floor of Phú Thạnh Building said he did not know where he could purchase high-quality items. He said he also wanted to install a rope-and-pulley system.
A female resident of the Trường Sa B1 apartment building in Bình Thạnh District, who declined to be named, said that she would buy drop ladders and look for information about fire prevention on social media.
Other residents are also paying more attention to such devices. Over the last few days, purchases of fire-prevention items rose by 30-40 per cent compared to normal days, according to the Centre for Fire-Prevention Devices.
Minh of the fire-fighting police in Tân Phú District suggested that residents install a rope-and-pulley system if they can afford the cost, which is at least VNĐ10 million (US$438).
However, he said they should ask for guidance from the seller on how the system should be properly installed, and should avoid fake products by doing research about sellers and products. — VNS
Lieutenant Colonel Huỳnh Quang Tuyến, deputy head of the HCM City Fire Prevention and Fighting Police Deparment’s Advising Office.
What are your challenges in checking for fire safety in such locations?
Every year the Fire Fighting and Prevention Police Department can only inspect an apartment building four times and commercial buildings once. The building management has to inspect the fire safety equipment by itself the rest of the year. If we are to do unannounced checks, we would need complaints from residents or orders from higher-ups. Otherwise, before every inspection we have to inform the buildings three days in advance so that usually some would try to cover up their flaws temporarily.
It is, however, difficult to verify that fire fighting and prevention equipment are working properly because at the time of inspection the systems and equipment are still operational, meaning we have no right to order them to replace them.
It is not regulated by law to order apartment developers to replace fire fighting and prevention equipment unless it is out of order.
The problem is most apartment developers install fire fighting and prevention equipment for the sole purpose of dealing with inspections instead of for the safety of the people living in the apartment.
There are constant false fire alarms in some apartments, causing the apartment management as well as residents to gradually lose awareness of the potential risk. They even shut down the fire alarm system. It matters since when a fire does occur, it will have serious consequences.
It is common for most apartment developers to hand over the apartments to buyers for use even before the apartment has been checked for fire fighting and prevention.
However, under the current law on fire fighting and prevention, the above act only attracts a maximum fine of VNĐ80 million (US$3,524). It won’t be subject to further sanctions unless the owners repeats the act with serious consequences.
In addition, we cannot really force them to comply. Earlier we could work with different sectors such as electricity and water to cut off offenders’ power and water supply to force them to comply with the regulations, but now we cannot. Since the maximum penalty is too low, some apartment owners just pay the fine and let residents in. The fine amount is nothing compared to the compensation they have to pay thousands of buyers if their contracts are infringed. Also dealing with violations is not easy since it involves working with other departments and sectors.
What will the fire police do to force apartment developers to be more responsible about fire safety?
Different departments need to work together and propose methods to discipline irresponsible apartment developers. It is also important to educate people about laws regarding fire safety and fire safety-related skills through the media besides not using any buildings without a complete fire safety system.
Võ Văn Hoan, chief of the city’s People’s Committee’s secretariat
The city will increase the number of inspections of fire-safety regulations at residential buildings and apartments to raise awareness about fire prevention and fire-fighting among locals and enterprises.
Fire-safety handbooks will be provided to all households in the city, especially in apartment buildings.
Regulations on construction management as well as fire prevention and safety will be publicised, and the city authority will also publicise procedures dealing with the handling of investors who fail to meet fire safety standards.