Speech by Mr. Louis Ng Kok Kwang, MP for Nee Soon GRC at the Second Reading of the Fire Safety (Amendment) Bill (Bill No. 16/2019)
Sir, I stand in support of the Bill. I’ve seen firsthand the amazing work our SCDF does and let me start by thanking them for keeping all of us safe and for risking their lives to save ours.
I support the strengthening of SCDF’s regulatory and enforcement powers and the increase in penalties for fire-related offences.
Fire alarm systems for HDB flats
The Bill will empower the Commissioner to mandate building owners to install critical fire safety upgrades, such as fire alarm systems. I strongly support this as the fire alarm system provides early warning to occupants and can potentially save lives. A lot of lives.
My question is, if we agree that having a fire alarm system saves lives, why do we not have it for our HDB flats? It seems even stranger that we have fire alarm systems in our HDB multi-story car parks where nobody lives and not in our HDB flats where hundred of people live in? Why?
I know the reply will be that “under our Fire Code, all residential units are designed as fire compartments, typically using fire-resistant walls and floors, and fire-rated main entrance doors, to mitigate fire spread.”
But we know that this is not the case in recent fire incidences.
Sir, majority of fire injuries in 2018 were caused by fires in residential buildings. Worryingly, there was a massive 50% increase in the number of fire injuries from 60 injuries in 2017 to 90 in 2018. All four fatalities caused by fire in 2018 also occurred in HDB flats.
Last year, I asked whether the MHA will review the Fire Code and consider including in the Fire Code the installation of central fire alarm systems in HDB flats.
Minister Shanmugam responded that all new residential units and residential units undergoing works which impact fire safety will be required to install Home Fire Alarm Devices (HFADs). This is a commendable move as the alarm will provides early warning to the occupants of the affected unit, so that they can take immediate steps to evacuate or extinguish the fire.
Moving forward, does the Ministry have plans to further require all other HDB units to install HFADs?
We still to remember that a HFAD will only alert the residents of an individual unit. Again, without a centralised fire alarm system the only way of alerting other residents in the block of the fire is for our firemen or policemen to go unit by unit, knocking on each and every door.
This is incredibly inefficient which possibly prolongs the exposure of residents to smoke which is well-known to be the most common cause of injury in fires. According to a study, it is the “inhalation of noxious gases rather than thermal injury” that leads to a fatality.
I sincerely hope that MHA will consider mandating centralised fire alarm systems in every HDB block.
Next, to make our HDB flats even safer, I hope that MHA mandates that every unit be fitted with a fire-rated door, even those facing an external corridor.
I understand that the current thinking is that for units that face an external corridor, the smoke will dissipate outwards and away from the other units, and hence SCDF’s assessment is that there is no need for a fire-rated door to be installed for such units.
But this was not the case for the fire that broke out in an Ang Mo Kio flat on July 22. SCDF said it rescued four people, including three children, from the neighbouring unit while police and SCDF personnel evacuated about 60 people from the affected blocks. That was a HDB unit facing an external corridor and the neighbouring units were affected.
We recognise the effectiveness of fire-rated doors in slowing down the spread of fires and smoke, why then do we not make this a requirement for all units?
I understand that this will have cost implications. However, given that residential fires are a real risk, the dividends of our investment in fire-rated doors will come in the form of lives saved and injuries prevented which is priceless.
For the centralised fire alarm systems, I also appreciate that there might be concerns about false alarms and people tampering with the alarms systems but again in this case, the pros heavily outweigh the cons.
Fire alarms in all units, a centralised fire alarm system, and fire-rated doors will help to save lives. I hope the Ministry will consider my recommendations.
Appointment of third party officers
Lastly, with regard to the appointment of third party officers. The new Section 8(F) provides for the appointment of “supplementary enforcement officers”, or third parties to take charge of “routine fire safety enforcement checks and building inspections”.
The rationale behind this amendment is for the SCDF to focus its resources on “more complex” enforcement matters instead. I would like to seek a few clarifications on this new provision.
First, these third party officers have very broad and diverse powers and tasks. Can the Ministry clarify how these officers will be selected and “suitably trained” to ensure they can understand and perform their responsibilities just as effectively as an SCDF officer?
Second, I understand that these third party officers will be subject to audits conducted by SCDF. Can the Minister share more about the scope and frequency of these audits? Will the Minister have ultimate oversight of the audit findings?
Third, can the Ministry consider implementing a reporting mechanism to ensure that third party enforcement is being carried out in a fair and effective manner? What other safeguards would be put in place to keep these officers in check?
Such checks and safeguards will be useful in ensuring that third party officers are compliant with the provisions of this Act and carry out enforcement properly.
Sir, notwithstanding these clarifications, I stand in support of the Bill, which will better protect our people from fires.
Watch the speech here
Watch the response by MHA here