SINGAPORE: The Singapore Civil Defence Force (SCDF) will be able to compel building owners to install critical fire safety upgrades after Parliament passed amendments to the Fire Safety Act on Monday (Aug 5).
The SCDF regularly reviews the fire code, which specifies fire safety standards for buildings. However, changes to the code only apply to new buildings, and to existing ones that undergo addition and alteration works.
With the introduced changes, the commissioner of Civil Defence can issue an order to require building owners to install fire safety measures, if these measures are necessary for public safety, said Senior Parliamentary Secretary for Home Affairs Sun Xueling.
These include fire alarm systems and fire hose reels, MHA had said previously.
“SCDF will be judicious, and will take a risk-based approach in identifying buildings and the fire safety upgrades that will be required of them,” she added.
Around 500 buildings have been identified based on factors such as their age and the profile of the occupants, said Ms Sun. These are mostly commercial, industrial and government buildings.
While Members of Parliament (MPs) voiced their approval for the changes, a number suggested that safety could be further bolstered by the installation of warning systems in local residences.
MP Chia Shi-Lu said he particularly would like to see wider adoption of smoke detection and sprinkler systems in all buildings.
“Fire is a horrific event, and the amendments to this Act are timely and will strike a balance between ... ensuring public safety as well as managing the costs for building owners and industry stakeholders,” he said.
“The ministry has indicated that it is prepared to be flexible and may accept alternative solutions for buildings which encounter technical problems installing such features.
"I appeal to SCDF to adhere to its high standards. Understandably, all owners will be concerned with costs but alternatives which compromise on safety should not be permitted.”
MPs also pointed out that an additional way to beef up fire safety would be to make installation of warning systems mandatory in all homes, particularly Housing Board flats.
“My question is, if we agree that having a fire alarm system saves lives, why do we not have it for our HDB flats?” asked MP Louis Ng.
“It seems even stranger that we have fire alarm systems for our HDB multi-story car parks where nobody lives and not in our HDB flats where hundreds of people live? Why?”
The majority of fire injuries in 2018 were caused by fires in residential buildings, Mr Ng pointed out.
Since June last year, the installation of smoke detectors or Home Fire Alarm Devices (HFADs) has been made mandatory for all new homes. Existing homes which undergo fire safety works are also required to install them.
The HFADs provide occupants with an early warning so that they can extinguish the fire or evacuate, according to SCDF.
This is a “commendable” move, said Mr Ng, but he pointed out that a centralised fire alarm system in each block would make it even more efficient to warn the residents of other units.
Mr Ng also asked if MHA had plans to require all other HDB units to install HFADs.
This was echoed by NMP Walter Theseira, who suggested that it be made mandatory for all HDB flats to install HFADs, with the initial installation costs in existing HDB flats paid for by the Government.
“As of 2018, we have nearly one million owner-occupied HDB flats in Singapore. Nearly all were built before Home Fire Alarm Devices (HFADs) became mandatory for new flats in June 2018 … The costs of installing Home Fire Alarm Devices in one million HDB flats will be significant, but reasonable compared to other large social welfare programmes,” said Dr Theseira.
Smoke detectors decrease the probability of fatal fire incidents “dramatically", added NMP Anthea Ong.
If mandating the installation is not possible, she suggested incentivising home owners to equip homes with fire extinguishers and smoke alarms through offering discounts for conservancy charges or for home fire insurance premiums.
However, Ms Sun pointed out that HFADs may give off false alarms, leading to undue stress and disturbances for residents. She explained that having the HFAD linked to a central fire alarm system would also have "downsides".
"To give members a sense of the potential challenge that we will face from false alarms, SCDF’s records showed that for buildings with central fire alarm systems now, there were about 47,000 alarm activations per year - out of which less than one per cent involved a real fire," said Ms Sun.
As such, a balanced approach needs to be taken, she added.
"False alarms could be due to reason such as non-maintenence of the central fire alarm system, failure of the building owner to request for the alarm system to be temporarily disabled while engaging in fogging activities, or just simply prank actions by some ill-intentioned persons," she explained
"Regardless, regular citizens are affected. While we’re not mandating that all existing home owners install HFADs in their homes at this point, we strongly encourage our residents to do so."
AUTHORISED THIRD-PARTY INSPECTIONS
As part of the amendments to the Bill, the SCDF will also be able to appoint authorised third parties to conduct routine fire safety enforcement checks and building inspections.
This “will optimise SCDF’s capabilities and resources, by allowing them to focus on complex areas which pose higher fire safety risks, and outsource more routine and straightforward functions,” explained Ms Sun.
These third parties can conduct fire safety building inspections and exercise certain enforcement powers, such as the issuance of Fire Hazard Abatement Notices, for simple and straightforward cases.
“SCDF will exercise careful discretion in the scope of work to be outsourced, and retain control over all fire safety enforcement actions,” said Ms Sun. “SCDF will also implement safeguards, such as random audits, and require appointed officers to wear body-worn cameras when they carry out inspections.
“This will ensure that the appointed officers conduct their inspections professionally, and minimise the risk of any abuse of authority.”
In response, MP Sylvia Lim questioned whether there are concerns over the SCDF losing “valuable ground knowledge by outsourcing routine inspections”.
“Would these third party officers be restricted to Singaporeans and Permanent Residents or would foreigners also be eligible for deployment? At the steady state, how large a force of third-party officers does SCDF expect to maintain?” she added.
To begin with, the SCDF is only looking to appoint a small team of about five third-party officers said Ms Sun in response.
She added that only "simple checks" would be outsourced, with the SCDF continuing to issue composition notices and collect fines till confident that these officers are competent in their duties.
Added Ms Sun: "We will ensure that our officers continue to walk the ground and keep a finger on the pulse of the situation."
Giving the examples of the 2017 Grenfell fire in London and as well as the Notre Dame cathedral fire in Paris this year, Ms Sun said that these incidents highlighted the importance of “strong regulatory regimes” as prevention.
While Singapore’s fire fatality rate remains low compared to other major cities around the world, it is not invulnerable, she added.
“We have succeeded in reducing it by half from 0.15 fatalities per 100,000 population in 2014, to 0.07 in 2018. In comparison, New York’s fire fatality rate was 15 times higher in 2018, and Tokyo’s was nine times higher,” said Ms Sun.
"That said, we should not be complacent, and think we are immune."