SINGAPORE: The International Technical Committee for the Prevention and Extinction of Fire publishes statistics on fire safety regularly, collated from about 30 to 40 countries each year.
Singapore’s fire casualty rates consistently rank among the safest worldwide. From 2013 to 2017, Singapore reported an average of 0.76 fires per 1,000 people – significantly lower than the average of about 2 per 1000.
The impact of our fires on human life was also less severe, with only 0.04 fire deaths per 100,000 people; the average is about 1.4 per 100,000.
But there is an area where we can do more. With the powers under the amended Fire Safety Act, the Government should mandate that all HDB flats install home fire alarms, with the initial installation costs in existing HDB flats paid for by the Government.
As of 2018, we have nearly 1 million owner-occupied HDB flats in Singapore. Nearly all were built before home fire alarm devices became mandatory for new flats in June 2018.
Like many Singaporeans, I live in an older HDB flat. Home fire alarms were not common in Singapore when my flat was built.
They were not a consideration for my parents or the older generation when they moved in. So it is reasonable to assume that the vast majority of HDB flats have no fire alarms.
The costs of installing such devices in one million HDB flats will be significant, but reasonable compared to other large social welfare programmes.
The published equipment costs range from S$50 to S$80 for a fire alarm with a 10-year battery. If we conservatively assume costs at the upper end of this range, we can budget S$80 million for equipment, and that amount again for installation costs and public education, for a total programme cost of about S$160 million.
The Government has the financial capacity to undertake this programme. It is clearly prepared to spend even larger sums than S$160 million on the welfare of Singaporeans. After all, the S$1.1 Billion Bicentennial Bonus gave lower-income Singaporeans cash payouts of up to S$300 each.
HELP SINGAPOREANS MAKE WISE CHOICES ON HOME FIRE SAFETY
As an economist, I usually presume Government should spend money cautiously, and should avoid interfering unnecessarily with private markets. But there are inherent market failures in the private provision of fire safety.
First, many Singaporeans lack the information and experience to make wise choices on home fire safety. In some developed countries, home fire alarms have been mandatory for many years. However, Singaporeans have only recently been introduced to this concept.
There is a learning curve, and education is necessary to help Singaporeans understand why fire alarms are important and how to keep them in working order. There will be nuisance alarms.
Homeowners may have to adjust their cooking habits, such as ensuring that ventilation prevents cooking smoke from triggering the alarm. Because of our general ignorance of the benefits of home fire alarms, we may not invest appropriately in home fire safety if we leave it to the market.
Second, there are real benefits of installing fire alarms to homeowners and the community. Homes with working fire alarms had half the death rates from fire compared to homes without working fire alarms, according to a paper published in the Fire Safety Journal in 2016.
Elderly residents would especially benefit from Government-installed fire alarms. Even in countries where home fire alarms are common, research finds that fire alarms are less likely to be installed or working in the homes of the elderly.
Our ageing population faces higher fire risks. Cooking fires are more likely to be forgotten by the elderly. Physical limitations make it more likely that accidents will happen with oil lamps and incense.
Some psychological conditions often found in the elderly, such as hoarding disorders, may also contribute to fire risks. Our ageing population also tends to live in older flats, which have older wiring and electrical infrastructure.
Assistance devices for the elderly, such as motorised wheelchairs, rely on lithium batteries with their attendant risks. If a fire does break out, an older population is less able to react quickly to put out the fire or to escape. The extra seconds or minutes that an alarm gives for warning could be critical.
Third, light-touch interventions – as an alternative to mandatory installation – may not help improve fire safety.
Programmes that educate the public on fire alarms only result in a modest increase in installation rates, a study in the Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews in 2001 found. Community programmes that gave away home fire alarms had no effect.
Perhaps there is a psychological explanation. For most of us, a home fire is a remote risk which simply isn’t salient.
It isn’t a financial cost issue for many. It is a mental bandwidth issue. We have other things to do and installing a home fire alarm is a low priority.
If we aspire towards a high rate of installation, I am forced to the conclusion that only a mandatory, Government-funded programme is likely to have significant effects.
Finally, cost. If we agree that installation of fire alarms will benefit HDB residents and the community, then we should do so as efficiently as possible. There will be considerable economies of scale from having installation carried out by contractors appointed through a rigorous tender process.
The contractors will buy in bulk and develop standardised processes for installation. This will be much cheaper than having residents individually engage contractors.
We should be particularly wary of rent-seekers who exploit fire safety to make private profits. Many residents have encountered door-to-door salesmen selling fire protection equipment.
Some of these salesmen have falsely claimed to be agents of the SCDF, the local Member of Parliament, or other authorities. The equipment may be sold at grossly marked-up prices.
Education is no barrier to exploitation. A friend, who has a PhD, bought a fire extinguisher, thinking the salespeople were acting with the support of the authorities. So everyone can be fooled.
But without proper education, it is unlikely that an installed fire alarm will be maintained effectively.
A resident who experiences false alarms because the device is installed next to the cooking stove may just disable the device instead of relocating it. We cannot rely on these private opportunists to educate the public.
WHAT ABOUT PRIVATE HOMES?
Mandating home fire alarms in our private condominiums and private property may be more challenging. The safety of residents in private property is also important, but the economies of scale are different.
There are a huge variety of floor plans and designs of private condominiums and homes. The economies of scale from a centralised, coordinated programme are likely to be much smaller, compared to HDB housing where a standardised process for installation can be developed.
If we can work out a plan for supporting private property owners, we should also consider mandating installation in all residential private property, to make the nation fire safe.
While we sometimes have an unhealthy obsession with performance measurement, I encourage the Ministry of Home Affairs and the Singapore Civil Defence Force to set as a Key Performance Indicator the percentage of Singapore homes with working home fire alarm devices.
With the amended Fire Safety Act, we can mandate that all HDB flats install fire alarms, and to ensure that installation rates are high, we should use public funds to pay for the installation.
Walter Theseira is a Nominated Member of Parliament and Associate Professor at the Singapore University of Social Sciences.