Two things precious to a densely populated city of high-rise buildings are an efficient power supply and awareness of fire safety. Thankfully, the worst-case scenario of a power blackout while people are fleeing a serious fire alert is most unlikely in Hong Kong, thanks to our dependable supply of electricity. But awareness of fire safety could do with a short, sharp jolt.
The alarm bells rang loudly six months ago when a coroner's jury looking into a fatal fire that started in a karaoke club in Mong Kok found 11 things that needed to be done to improve safety and help prevent a similar tragedy. And six months before that a management review of fire services by the Ombudsman found that enforcement of fire prevention was lax. Examples included a failure to inspect premises where serious deficiencies in fire equipment, such as sprinklers and smoke detectors, were reported by safety surveys. Other hazards common in old buildings include smoke doors that are left open or do not work, old electric wiring and narrow, obstructed staircases.
It is worrying that stepped-up safety inspections finally prompted by another fatal blaze early last year have recently uncovered an array of potentially deadly hazards in pre-1987 industrial buildings and old residential blocks, but encouraging that they have also resulted in a sharp rise in the number of fire-hazard notices issued by the Fire Services Department and the number of prosecutions.
Fire traps include locked emergency exits, obstructed escape routes, defective emergency lighting and fire doors left open. Some of these defects are to be found mainly in older residential buildings lacking security, property management staff or owners' incorporations to enforce safety regulations. However, it is the effectiveness of fire prevention, including compliance with safety standards that determines the level of risk to life and property. The expanded inspection regime should be maintained and not relaxed until the next avoidable tragedy.