Ngau Tau Kok fire

Fire safety authorities open to alternative solutions as mini-storage operators slam strict rules

Operators complain existing requirements difficult to meet due to limited floor space

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 17 January, 2017, 11:43am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 17 January, 2017, 1:19pm

The city’s fire safety authorities said they were open to “considering alternatives” to certain requirements imposed on mini-storage outlets after operators criticised some of the rules for being too harsh.

The Fire Services Department (FSD) confirmed with the Post that it would consider such proposals but stressed that commercial considerations could not override public safety.

The alternative solutions, which have yet to be agreed on by both parties, must meet fire safety standards, such as making sure partitioned arrangements did not pose inherent security risks, the FSD said.

It’s in the mini-storage industry’s own interest to reduce risks

This came after the Self Storage Association Asia (SSAA), which represents almost two-thirds of the market share in the storage facility industry by gross floor area, revealed at a press conference on Monday that the FSD would “accept alternative solutions”.

“Their ultimate goal is to stop the spread of [a] fire for at least 30 minutes. They have said this outright. They have been willing to accept alternative solutions to meet their goal,” SSAA executive director Luigi La Tona said at the event, referring to a meeting with the FSD on December 30.

The department, in response to the inferno at a mini-storage facility that claimed the lives of two firemen last June, had called for operators to comply with stringent regulations, which the authority said had been in place “since Day One”, and issued more than 1,486 fire hazard abatement notices to 297 operators.

Requirements such as a 2.4-metre gap between storage zones and a one-metre gap between storage units and the ceiling, among others, were “feasible and necessary”, the FSD had said earlier. They adhered to “international standards” to prevent fires from spreading from storage islands and to allow space for smoke and heat to dissipate, it added.

Six months after fatal fire, a third of mini-storage centres in Hong Kong found to breach safety rules

A third of the 756 mini-storage operators inspected were found to have failed to meet fire safety requirements as of December, official figures showed.

The FSD also stressed that it would continue to take enforcement action and issue fire hazard abatement notices to operators.

In the meeting last December, fire safety authorities made a counter proposal to the rule requiring a 2.4-metre gap. It involved having the entire 50 square metre storage zone encased in a sealed, fireproof “box” with a lid on top to prevent a fire from spreading from one zone to another.

It is not clear how the FSD had come up with the proposal. La Tona said that there were no storage facilities around the world that had used or were using this specific method.

There are no specific regulations on mini-storage facilities in Hong Kong. The requirement for a 2.4-metre gap between storage zones came under general warehouse regulations and was “unheard of” by the industry before the fire, La Tona said.

“Self storage has been around for more than 20 years – nobody has met those standards,” La Tona added. “It really surprised the industry.”

Killer Ngau Tau Kok fire tamed after 80 hours

The association executive director said that the rule, if implemented, would change the industry “drastically” given how hard floor space was to come by in Hong Kong.

In one case, a business would have to lose up to 35 per cent of its floor area if such a gap was mandated, he said.

La Tona added that since the FSD and other government departments had begun strictly enforcing regulations, up to 50 facilities, or about one-tenth of the market, had closed or would close down because they could not comply with the requirements.

The storage association said it hired a fire engineer from consulting firm Arup last week to come up with “sustainable, alternative solutions” that would stop the spread of a fire for 30 minutes.

It hoped to be able to announce the findings, if and when approved by the FSD, by the end of March at the latest.