Public safety

Father who lost sons in fire hails Ombudsman probe into emergency vehicle access

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 18 May, 2014, 4:55am
UPDATED : Sunday, 18 May, 2014, 1:58pm

A father who lost two sons in a devastating fire 18 months ago says the Office of the Ombudsman's probe into fire safety regulations in the New Territories is a "huge step forward" in protecting lives and homes.

Simon Watkiss, 54, who has campaigned for tighter regulation ever since, warned that village houses were still encroaching to the edge of roads and blocking access to the emergency services - which the Briton blames for the death of his young boys.

Elliot Watkiss, eight, and his brother Frankie, seven, died of smoke inhalation in their home in Wing Hing Wai, Yuen Long, in October 2012 after a fire broke out while they were asleep.

"Being 54 gives you a perspective on life and I understand the wheels of bureaucracy and politics as far as changing policies in government takes time," the former actor said.

"And actually getting someone to look at something is a huge step forward."

A fire engine and ambulance did not have direct access to the Watkiss home. Firefighters and paramedics had to park on the main road, Kam Sheung Road, and run 100 metres back and forth, to tackle the blaze and treat the casualties caused by a faulty air-conditioning unit.

Part of the wider problem is that buildings classed as New Territories Exempted Houses (NTEH), which covers most homes in the area, do not have to comply with emergency vehicle access regulations. An emergency vehicle access road must be a minimum of six metres wide.

A Post inspection of Nam Hing West Road, a designated EVA road, found that it was 3.1 metres at its narrowest section.

Hundreds of residents and homes rely on this particular road, but neither fire engines nor ambulances can travel down it.

A spokesman for the Ombudsman said it received 12 complaints over the last three years on the issue of inadequate emergency vehicle access.

"The efficacy of fire safety measures has a direct bearing on the lives and safety of NTEH residents," read a statement posted on the Ombudsman's website.

The final report and recommendation will not be ready for up to 12 months.

The investigation will take into account feedback from residents and interest groups, such as powerful rural lobby the Heung Yee Kuk, and the Ombudsman may include site visits and meetings with civil servants.

"The situation has got worse because they are building so many new houses," Watkiss said. "They are building so many in the middle of the villages and the only access is through my road and they can't get a decent-sized fire engine through.

"It gives me hope that the people of Hong Kong will have something done for their physical safety rather than people building houses for the sake of just earning money," he added.

A spokesman for the Fire Services Department said it would be willing to work closely with the Ombudsman and was prepared to offer its "full assistance".

The government told lawmakers last year that it did not know how many buildings or housing estates lacked emergency vehicle access. Despite the risks, it "does not consider it necessary" to conduct a widespread survey of them.