Few lessons learned from fire tragedies

PUBLISHED : Monday, 06 January, 1997, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 06 January, 1997, 12:00am

It is really a sad state of affairs that only after several serious fires the Government has decided to wake up, at least temporarily and to take some kind of action.

It was also rather disturbing to listen to the broadcast and hear comments from James To, President of the Security Panel, that 'lessons' are to be learned from the Garley Building fire.

After the Shek Kip Mei fire, a 'committee' consisting of the Security Branch, Fire Services and Building departments was formed and proposed that owners of commercial premises should install sprinkler systems, exit signs and fire extinguishers in order to improve public safety. The 40 charred bodies in the Garley Building and the Ambassador Hotel fire, indicate that little or no 'lessons' have been learned from the past fire tragedies. During a fire, residents and visitors lost in dark and smoky corridors and staircases are often unable to locate a safe escape route, which may lead them out of the burning building.

In a serious incident, conventional 'emergency lighting systems' are prone to fail.

For example, exit signs, usually the sole source of illumination, provide far too little light for victims to recognise a safe escape route.

Based on our experience and inspections as a security firm, we have found that 70 per cent of all exit signs do not work, because the batteries are never replaced by the management.

Photoluminescent safety signs and markings cannot replace emergency lights but, in case of a serious fire, they are the last resort and the only method to guide trapped victims out of a dark, smoky inferno on fire. Photoluminescent safety signs are inexpensive, easy to install, safe and cannot fail! The Fire Services Department has recognised the usefulness of photoluminescent safety material, but it refuses to make it mandatory.

Instead, it barricades itself behind the 'Code of Practice' and an outdated BS (British Standard) standard, which only provides for tritium (radioactive) signs but does not cover non-toxic and non-radioactive DIN (Deutsche Industrie Norm) specified photoluminescent markings.

What should be done? Simplicity is the key word. Five easy and cost-effective steps to improve fire safety in older commercial and in residential buildings, in guesthouses as well as in hotels: Install clearly-lit exit signs with Photoluminescent front panels.

Mark and highlight exit doors and fire escape routes with photoluminescent safety material (paint, panels, stripes, etc).

Install tamper-proof fire extinguishers on each floor. Highlight the location of the fire extinguisher with photoluminescent panels.

Clearly highlight all fire alarm buttons. Photoluminescent paint guarantees that the alarm button can be located even in complete darkness.

Building management to be responsible and liable to keep fire escapes and doors unobstructed and accessible at all times.

Anybody listening? URS BAEUMLE Managing Director Swiss-Impex Co Ltd