Friday, May 20, 2022

Lessons on fire safety

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(AP Photo/Manman Dejeto)

Fire.

That one word evokes fear and panic, especially when flames occur in the presence of humans within an enclosed structure.

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Many lessons have been learned from the tragedy in Quezon City inside the Ozone Disco, when fire killed 162 people 20 years ago and the Manor Hotel blaze where 75 people perished in 2001 to the Kentex factory fire in Valenzuela City where 74 people lost their lives in 2015.

The primary lesson in all three incidents is that a fire can quickly turn deadly when safety standards are either taken for granted or ignored.

In Davao City, that lesson was apparently driven home once again after 38 people died in a fire, which lasted two days before being put out, struck the NCCC mall last December.

Two of the incidents mentioned in this story have resulted in convictions. However, both cases still have to go through the appeals process. The latter two incidents are still either under investigation or undergoing the judicial process.

OZONE DISCO FIRE

On March 18, 1996, 162 people perished when a fire broke out inside the Ozone Disco.

Investigators found that the establishment did not comply with relevant fire safety laws and building codes. They used the word “fire trap” to describe Ozone Disco.

Charges were filed against several Quezon City officials and the owners and operators of Ozone Disco.

Five years later, a Quezon City regional trial court issued the first convictions in the Ozone Disco tragedy.

Found guilty of reckless imprudence were Ozone owner Hermilio Ocampo and Ozone treasurer Ramon Ng. They were sentenced to serve four years in jail.

The judicial course for the city officials took around two decades to resolve. These officials were charged with violating the Anti-Graft and Corrupt Practices Act.

In 2014, the Sandiganbayan found Francisco itliong, Petronillo De Llamas, Alfredo Macapugay, Rolando Mamaid, Renator Rivera Jr., Edgardo Reyes and Feliciano Sagana along with Ocampo and Ng guilty of the violating the said law.

A year later, the Sandiganbayan rejected the appeal filed by the said individuals for lack of merit.

The antigraft court affirmed its decision sentencing them to a prison term lasting at least six years to at most ten years.

According to court records, it was found that Ozone Disco had serious fire safety deficiencies.

Foremost among them was the lack of adequate fire exits. It was found that Ozone Disco’s single main door only opened inwards, a serious design flaw that prevented people from exiting the burning establishment.

What was supposed to be an alternative exit was located in Ozone Disco’s lounge was effectively rendered useless for an emergency because furniture blocked it. What was worse, it led only to a firewall, not directly outside the establishment.

On 2015, the gutted Ozone Disco was torn down and a new business establishment was put up on the site.

MANOR HOTEL BLAZE

On August 18, 2001, barely five years after the deadly Ozone Disco fire, another blaze caused tragedy in Quezon City.

Some 75 people perished when a fire broke out in Manor Hotel.

In a story published in the New York Times, it was reported that Manor Hotel “had no emergency alarms, functioning firefighting equipment or adequate escape routes.”

“Most victims died of smoke inhalation, trapped between a searing, smoky corridor and the ornate white burglar bars on the hotel’s windows,” the NYT story said.

The news report added that the owner of the hotel, a certain William Genato, had been charged with reckless endangerment resulting in multiple deaths and injuries.

“The charge carries a maximum penalty of six years in prison, plus fines and compensation,” the report added.

It was further reported that the city officials had inspected the hotel and found that the establishment did not comply with fire safety rules. However, the hotel continued to operate.

According to reports, Genato’s lawyers had arranged an out-of-court settlement with the heirs of the Manor Hotel fire.

In April 2017, the Sandiganbayan affirmed its verdict finding Alfredo Macapugay, a former Quezon City official, guilty for violating the antigraft law in relation to the Manor Hotel fire.

The former city official was also implicated in the Ozone Disco case.

KENTEX PLASTIC FACTORY FIRE

The Kentex Plastic factory fire in Valenzuela City led to 74 people losing their lives on May 13, 2015.

Like the Manor Hotel blaze, reports said most of the victims were overcome by smoke from the burning factory.

Survivors of the Kentex factory fire claimed they had to pry open the door of the building’s fire exit because it was locked.

And similar to the Manor Hotel fire, the factory was apparently allowed to continue operating after safety inspectors found that the building was not compliant with fire safety regulations.

An important issue was raised in an article published by The Guardian newspaper in the United Kingdom.

“How did Kentex manage to get its business permit from the local government or its certificate of compliance from the Department of Labor and Employment (DOLE)? The Bureau of Fire Protection (BFP) had not issued a fire permit to the factory owners in 2014 or 2015, and violations noted in their reports included a failure to service the fire extinguishers and a lack of fire drills, alarm systems and sprinkler systems,” said The Guardian news article on the fire.

Despite this issue, the Sandiganbayan cleared Valenzuela mayor Rex Gatchalian and two other city officials, Renchi Padayao and Eduardo Carreon last December of charges filed related to the fire.

According to the antigraft court, the local officials acted in good faith because an ordinance stated regulatory inspections will be conducted on business establishments after that particular business had obtained a permit operate.

According to Section 6 of Valenzuela City Ordinance No. 62, Series of 2012, “the main feature of this program is the post auditing scheme. This warrants post inspection of the issued regulatory permits and clearances within a reasonable time to double check the owner’s faithful confirmation to any regulatory requirements. This includes sanitation permits, local clearance and fire safety inspection permits. This is to ensure that only compliant and first rate businesses subsist in the city.”

The ordinance was intended to speed up the process of registering new businesses in Valenzuela City. More businesses operating in the city would mean an increased tax base for the city government.

THE NCCC MALL FIRE

(AP Photo/Christopher Bong Go, Special Assistant to the President)

On Dec. 23, 2017, the NCCC Mall in Davao City went up in flames leading to the deaths of 38 people.

Various news accounts quoted Fire Supt. Jerry Candido as saying the mall and the call center operating inside the building, Sample International (SSI), failed to comply with fire safety regulations.

Candido, spokesman of the Interagency Anti-Arson Task Force, said there were deficiencies in the building’s fire alarm, sprinkler system and fire exits.

According to reports, Candido said the sprinkler systems in the third and fourth floor of the building were not functioning.

It was explained that repairs on the mall’s third floor prompted the closing of the sprinkler system’s valve for that floor while the sprinkler system for the fourth floor was shut down “due to operation of SSI.”

The Task Force also found that the alarm systems of the mall and the call center were not connected and had to be manually activated.

“Whatever happens to NCCC Mall, the call center agents inside the SSI office would not hear the alarm,” a report by the Manila Bulletin quoted Candido. “Same thing if the fire will start in the SSI office, those in the third, second and ground floors, will not know there’s a fire. The alarm system was not interconnected.”

According to the Manila Bulletin report, Candido stated that that the fire exits were not compliant with the Fire Code of the Philippines as these were not heat and smoke-proof.

SAFETY FIRST

Emmanuel Harder, a safety and security executive with Company Z & Shield Z Management Consultancy, pointed out to the Philippines Graphic what he saw as important issues to consider about the Davao mall fire.

“Based on news reports, it looks like the employees of the call center died in the middle of the lobby trying to look for the exit route out of the building,” Harder said. Harder explained that based on Philippine fire safety regulations, fire exits should lead directly outside of the building.

“This means there is no way that smoke should be able to enter the fire exit stairwell,” Harder told the Graphic.

“Usually, there are two options,” he explained. “An external exit stairwell that will allow smoke going out to dissipate to the atmosphere. If it is an internal stairwell, the fire exit should have positive air pressure, meaning air pressure is stronger at the exit stairwell than the actual floor area so smoke cannot enter. This will give people enough time and space to reach the ground floor before smoke does get and make the stairwell impassable.”

Harder noted that the three fire incidents underlined the important role that fire drills and simulations play.

“If fire drills and simulations are held regularly at least once or twice a year, these will reveal defects or flaws in the structural, technical and organizational process,” Harder said.

Once such flaws were identified, corrective measures can then be put in place to eliminate these defects and increase the safety margin.

“If a fire drills or simulation is not taken seriously, then it fails to fulfill its intended function, which is to test the whole fire evacuation system,” Harder pointed out. “Negligence usually is the penalty given to those claiming they did not know the requirements of the Fire Code.” G

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