Hong Kong buildings still unsafe after Fa Yuen fire

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 28 March, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 28 March, 2013, 7:10am

The tragic blaze sparked by a row of hawker stalls at the doorstep of a Mong Kok building in late 2011 is a hard-earned lesson for everyone. Not only did it claim nine innocent lives, it highlighted the risks of ill-managed roadside stalls and thousands of old blocks with similar problems - cubicle flats, blocked fire escapes, poor building management. Sixteen months later, an inquest on the fatal accident reminds us that many buildings are still far from being safe. While officials in charge of building and fire safety are not doing their jobs as seriously as they should, residents too have a long way to go in making their own buildings safe.

The criticisms levelled against the Fire Services Department and other officials during the inquest are well deserved. It is puzzling that officials are still unsure what really went wrong after a year-long probe. Firefighters' rescue efforts appear to have been equally troubling, though the department denied the operation had been compromised by insufficient manpower. The victims' families were disappointed by the ruling that the deaths were accidental, insisting negligence had been involved.

A more important issue is to prevent tragedies from happening. The inquest jury has rightly urged the government to step up inspection and enforcement against violations of safety rules. The recommendations cannot be more timely given the poor record of enforcement and compliance. A new law on fire safety has been in force since 2007. Yet the government has so far checked only two-thirds of the 9,000 old composite buildings during a two-phase inspection programme. More than half of them were found to have problems, with some 112,800 warnings issued. But compliance is disturbingly low, with just 23 per cent having rectified the problems. Many simply ignored the warnings because they had no management committee.

It is good that the government appears to be getting serious in the wake of the Fa Yuen Street fire. The pledge to step up inspections of the remaining 6,500 buildings, along with a HK$230 million scheme to upgrade the installations and safety for hawker stalls in the next five years, should be welcome steps.

That said, residents should also take fire safety seriously. With tens of thousands of old buildings around, government inspection alone is hardly the answer to fire prevention. It is useless if problems unearthed during inspection are not rectified by property owners and residents.