Watchdog slams fire services for lax enforcement

PUBLISHED : Friday, 14 May, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 14 May, 2010, 12:00am

The Office of the Ombudsman has criticised the Fire Services Department for inefficient management and failing to inspect premises where serious deficiencies in fire equipment have been reported. He also criticised it for a very low rate of surprise checks on premises.

The department inspected an average of only six out of 10 premises reported to have defective fire facilities last year, the Ombudsman said.

Contractors check premises each year and report defects in fire equipment in a certificate sent to the Fire Services Department. Some 146,767 certificates were sent to the department last year, with 19,207 of them recording faults. Of those with faults, 11,555 premises were inspected, or 60 per cent.

The Ombudsman, Alan Lai Nin, said the department's officers checked all certificates manually, which was a waste of manpower that could otherwise go into inspection of premises. 'Management of the Fire Services Department is outdated. Its regulation [of premises] is not strict enough,' he said.

Premises that need following up are divided into two types: high priority, requiring immediate inspection (about 80 per cent of defect certificates), and those of lower priority, to which advisory letters are sent reminding owners that the defects need to be corrected.

The high-priority category includes, for example, premises where systems controlling sprinklers and smoke detectors are inoperative. Premises in the low-priority group were never inspected by the department, the Ombudsman noted.

The Ombudsman was also critical of the low level of surprise inspections carried out by the department. Of the city's 22,129 food premises, officers inspected a mere 78 at random last year, less than 0.4 per cent of the total - far lower than the target set by the department, 20 per cent.

He pointed out that another government body, the Food and Environmental Hygiene Department, required proof that restaurants complied with fire safety requirements when they applied for a new licence. However, it failed to check whether the premises met the standards when they were renewing licences.

In one case examined by the Ombudsman, an owner's application for a new restaurant licence was rejected because the sprinkler system in the multistorey building was not working. However, other restaurants operating in the same building had their licences renewed.

The public might assume a restaurant was a safe place, but this was not necessarily the case, investigators in the Office of the Ombudsman said.

The Fire Services Department should speed up establishment of a computer system for prompt identification of owners whose premises failed fire standards, the Ombudsman said. All high-priority cases should be inspected and low priority ones should be checked at random, he said. The department should also review the frequency of surprise inspections on food premises.

The Food and Environmental Hygiene Department should also ensure food premises met fire safety requirements before renewing their licences, he recommended.

A Fire Services Department spokesman said it welcomed the Ombudsman's report and would follow up on its recommendations.

The department attracted criticism for disorganised management at a meeting of the Legislative Council's security panel last week, which heard the department did not have a system for stocking firemen's tunics. The meeting followed complaints by firemen that their gear was outdated.

Smoke signals

2005
Number of fire service installations and equipment certificates received: 130,788
Number of certificates found to report defects: 14,449
Number of premises with defects inspected: 1,458

2006
Number of fire service installations and equipment certificates received: 122,358
Number of certificates found to report defects: 15,053
Number of premises with defects inspected: 2,202

2007
Number of fire service installations and equipment certificates received: 124,678
Number of certificates found to report defects: 16,131
Number of premises with defects inspected: 1,751

2008
Number of fire service installations and equipment certificates received: 143,229
Number of certificates found to report defects: 18,033
Number of premises with defects inspected: 1,924

2009
Number of fire service installations and equipment certificates received: 146,767
Number of certificates found to report defects: 19,207
Number of premises with defects inspected: 11,555

SOURCE: OFFICE OF THE OMBUDSMAN