Is Hong Kong ‘fiddling while Rome burns’ on fire safety? Lessons from deadly Ngau Tau Kok fire
Crackdown on safety of mini storage facilities is all very well, but last year’s tragedy exposed fire prevention failings that affect many privately owned buildings, say safety experts
For every month, two people were killed by fire in Hong Kong last year, and statistics show the numbers of deaths and injuries have not been falling. Two of the lives lost were firefighters tackling the June blaze in a Ngau Tau Kok industrial building, which started in a mini storage unit.
Given the statistics, some observers fear the recent announcement of stricter control of mini storage outlets amounts to little more than “fiddling while Rome burns”.
“The tragic double fatality last year was truly shocking, and it highlighted to me potential problems,” says David Townsend, manager of Andrew Moore & Associates’ group fire response and investigation services.
Hong Kong-based Townsend has 30 years of experience as a firefighter and fire investigator, and he is not the only one with grave professional concerns.
“It’s good to see the work being done on mini storage units, but what about supermarkets or sub-divided apartments?” asks John Herbert, who operates a building services engineering consultancy and has more than 20 years of experience in fire prevention and safety systems in the city.
“The Ngau Tau Kok disaster just demonstrated that FSD [Fire Services Department] had never been inside these buildings to see what was going on,” he says, exposing a potential flaw in fire safety management in the city.
And despite department funding of HK$5.38 billion for 2015/16 (up 7.7 per cent on the previous year) the headline statistics do not look encouraging.
Last year the department received 34,148 building fire calls, up 14.2 per cent from 2015, statistics announced by Fire Services Department director Li Kin-yat last month show. Twenty-four people, including senior station officer Thomas Cheung and senior fireman Samuel Hui Chi-kit, lost their lives to fire (against 23 fatalities in 2015 and 24 in 2014).
The total number of fire calls since 1969 has increased nearly tenfold, from 3,831 to 38,112 in 2016, despite rafts of safety legislation, advances in engineering capability, wider use of non-combustible building materials, and huge investment in fire prevention. The department employs 9,515 uniformed and 725 civilian staff (significantly more than counterparts in Taipei and Singapore), but is reluctant to discuss its own published data.
“It is not for the FSD to comment on trends in the statistics and whether they are going up or down.
It is very difficult to explain why our efforts might lead to more or less fire,” a department spokesman says.
“I’m afraid those comments ... might just highlight some of the problems,” says Townsend.
He adds that, although in most cities, any serious fire will be inspected by several independent forensic experts – appointed by insurance companies to establish cause and legal liability – in Hong Kong it is usually undertaken only by the FSD and police.
“It is clearly not common for local insurance companies to investigate claims,” he says. This, he says, could have a detrimental impact on fire safety because less scrutiny generally means less incentive for all parties to meet their fire safety obligations.
Comparing local headline numbers with those of other developed cities also makes disturbing reading. Singapore’s population is about 78 per cent of Hong Kong’s, but the Singapore Civil Defence Force reported a total of 4,604 fire calls in 2015, which is 12 per cent of Hong Kong’s most recent total. Singapore’s numbers had fallen by 2.5 per cent, while Hong Kong’s increased by 11 per cent. There were 111 fire injuries in Singapore in 2015, which is only 34 per cent of the Hong Kong total for the same year, and four fatalities, compared to 23 in Hong Kong.
Taipei has a similar population size to Hong Kong and reported 17 fatalities in 2016. It was the city’s worst year for fire-related deaths in a decade, but was still less than Hong Kong’s death toll. In 2015 and 2014, Taipei reported only five and nine fatalities, respectively.
“It is the trends that are more worrying than the actual statistics,” says Townsend, who urges caution when comparing figures that may not be “like for like”.
It is a pertinent warning because on closer examination, the FSD is one of the few such authorities to includes both “false alarms” and “unwanted alarms” in headline statistics. Of the 38,112 fire calls made last year, the vast majority were false or unwanted alarms. These false alarms are buried in the statistics appendix of the department’s full annual report, and are not part of the statistics quoted in the government’s budget documents. Of the 34,320 total fire calls in the 2015 headline figures, only 18 per cent were actually fires and the real number of fires in Hong Kong over the past five years is almost static, at around 6,300.
Of course, even false alarms must be investigated, but it does raise the question of why the number of fires and fatalities is not falling – as it is in most other developed cities – when HK$401.5 million of public money was allocated to fire protection and prevention in 2015/16.
Herbert has observed a series of flaws that may provide some explanation. He explains that while FSD staff are required to inspect the fire safety status of all new buildings, and have a reputation for being fastidious about it, once all is approved they do not return. Even if a commercial building is subsequently leased and fitted out as a shop, bar or mini storage unit, no subsequent routine inspections are made.
“FSD never go back and inspect a building unless there is a specific complaint,” says Herbert, explaining that a building owner is only required to engage a registered fire service installation contractor to undertake an annual inspection and issue a fire worthiness certificate.
Herbert says a number of practical problems are created when the department delegates its critical fire safety responsibilities to the private sector. The building owner often delegates his responsibilities to a building management company, which are typically very cost sensitive and often have little knowledge of fire safety. The annual inspection process is price driven, so the cheapest contractor tends to win the job, not necessarily the most conscientious.
Herbert also says the contractor only checks the fire safety equipment, not the building itself, so escape routes blocked by cardboard boxes, fire doors propped open, or fire hoses being used for car washing are not their main concern.
“Car parks in housing estates are a classic case of non-enforcement. I guarantee if you visit one you will see fire doors propped open and fire hoses being used for washing cars,” he says.
A random check at a housing estate in Chai Wan proves his point. Despite several uniformed management staff patrolling the site, two fire doors on level one of the car park are propped open, and the fire hoses have been secured with a large rusty padlock to stop the unmetered water being used for car washing. There is no sign of a key.
“Hong Kong is truly world class in fire safety up to the moment the occupancy permit is issued, and then it’s just left to the owners, management companies and registered fire safety inspectors to sort it out,” he says.
The views of Chow Wan-ki, the chair professor of architectural science and fire engineering at Polytechnic University, support many of Herbert’s points.
“Hong Kong is quite advanced in terms of fire safety, and in many areas we are taking the lead,” he says.
While he admits that older buildings pose a more complex challenge, he believes the “hardware” of fire safety (the engineering, architecture and technology), particularly in Hong Kong’s public buildings such as MTR stations, is not the area of concern.
“But you need good software to control the hardware,” he says, adding that human behaviour is essential to achieving fire safety.
“If I was asked to improve fire safety in Hong Kong, my first step would be to enhance fire safety management with the different parties involved; residents, management staff, building owners, fire officers and even neighbours,” he says, emphasising the importance of enforcement.
“Would you keep driving 50km/h in the city if there was no points deducting scheme for speeding?” he asks, while avoiding any specific criticism of the FSD.
Hong Kong’s public buildings may be among the safest in the world, and no one has anything but admiration for frontline firefighters, but there are some serious flaws in fire safety management that must be addressed if another tragedy such as Ngau Tau Kok is to be avoided.
“That sort of fatality may well occur again because the systems in place and the culture is possibly 20 to 25 years behind many other developed cities,” says Townsend.