Imagine a raid by police on a 26th-floor bar filled with under-age drinkers, followed by a stampede as the young patrons headed down the fire escape. If you can't, it is documented by a report in this newspaper in September 2010 which quoted the father of a teenager who was in the bar at the time. Luckily no one was injured. What might have happened if the panic had been caused by a fire emergency does not bear thinking about. This was brought to mind by a recent warning from Secretary for Food and Health Dr Ko Wing-man that upstairs bars may face tighter rules on customer numbers to ensure fire safety and noise controls.
The increased fire hazard posed by a proliferation of bars in buildings not designed for them, often driven there by rising rents, is obvious. It is exacerbated by the retreat of smokers to these hard-to-police indoor venues.
Fire safety is an abiding concern of high-rise living, working and playing. It is magnified when a large number of bars in the same building - especially in Wan Chai, Causeway Bay and Mong Kok - result in people queuing for lifts to enter and leave and for toilet facilities on each floor not designed for such crowds.
Orderly evacuation in an emergency is even more problematic, with exits and fire escapes barely wide enough for people to walk two abreast and sometimes obstructed by trash.
Ko issued his warning after joining Liquor Licensing Board inspectors on a check of pubs in Central and Tsim Sha Tsui. Resistance from bar owners and managers to a lower maximum number of customers, now set at 30 per 1,000 sq ft, is to be expected, given that a crowd creates an "atmosphere" that attracts customers in a competitive industry. But much larger numbers during peak hours do pose dangers. In any event, Ko says the government will increase fire-safety inspections. This should happen immediately.
Officials should also review a divided licensing process involving a number of different departments to give the Liquor Licensing Board more authority in upholding safety standards.