Safe homes and buildings are our collective responsibility

Safety With Fire Chief Khiruddin this week looks at keeping fire hazards off from houses and buildings. Smoke in the city photo (for illustration) by Shanti Ayadurai.
By Datu Khiruddin Drahman

MANY people often think that fire safety and fire security are the government’s responsibility alone.

But we must also realise that 99 percent of fire safety depends greatly on us. And our reaction towards various compliances that are associated with it.

I would therefore say that fire safety is everyone’s shared responsibility.

The question arises: Are we prepared to rise above our present circumstances?

In terms of collective responsibility and promoting awareness on fire safety in the community, who’s really responsible? It’s all of us!

We all play a big role in such matters. Collective action is much needed towards fire prevention. The public must always prioritise on fire safety and taking essential precautions.

I always stress that understanding the 3P’s are of utmost importance — PRECAUTION, PREVENTION and PROTECTION. These are CONCERTED EFFORTS to be undertaken by all parties concerned.

Looking at the bigger picture, we must understand the basic needs of our home – the place where we live. How safe is it?

Is the building or structure that is supposed to be a place for us to live make us feel safe? Safety of life to me is the ultimate prerequisite in building design even if it is a small and private residential dwelling.

The safety of occupants in buildings must be of prime consideration. This can be achieved by minimum fire protection procedures through some basic considerations.

First, the means of escape for occupants: How fast can they evacuate safely from the dangers of a fire?

Second, the design of a building can retard the spread of a fire within the building and to another.

Third, having measures to detect and extinguish fires.

Therefore, the safety of lives is the ultimate principle of fire safety in a building. When there is a fire in a building, the immediate hazard to the occupants and  structure can be precisely defined.

But interestingly, the requirement of adequate means of escape is an inexact science. I must say that this varies as a result of different types of occupancy, usage, processes, height and types of buildings.

Having proper means of escape in high-rise buildings can pose new challenges to building designs. There should be considerations where the occupants must be protected within the structure.

To protect occupants from within, the fire must be kept small and persons prone to the fire area must be able to move to a safe location within the high-rise structure quickly.

It is certainly not practical to design buildings that will eventually get the occupants trapped in case there is a fire.

Also bear in mind: it is not possible to secure absolute safety in buildings generally because of the human failure to maintain adequate fire protection installations or doing the right things right when a fire emergency arises.

What about the constraints of balancing life’s safety and fire integrity against practicality, aesthetic design and fire regulations? We must understand that the larger the space, the greater the potential for fire risks. And a greater loss should a fire break out.

When designing a building, the safety consideration is a must in the event an emergency occurs.

Passive fire protection is basically a planning matter. It must be considered at the planning stage of a building’s design to mitigate fire hazards and risks.

And the selection of fire-resistant materials, subdivision of the building into fire- tight cells or compartments, both vertically and horizontally, to contain outbreaks of fire and the soaring smoke, heat and toxic fumes are also basic prerequisites at the planning stage.

Effective passive fire precautions happen at the stage of good planning, design and sound construction. They can really complement other basic functions of a building.

And what is active fire protection? It is basically the manual or automatic fire protection systems such as fire alarms, detectors, rising mains, hose reels, fire intercoms, E.I.S, fixed gases (Co2) installation, automatic sprinklers and smoke spills systems to help contain and extinguish the fire if it occurs.  

Providing adequate and suitable facilities to assist rescue and fire suppression operations are also within the active fire defence strategies.

With new challenges for overall fire defence strategies, the “Fire Safety Philosophy” of Uniform Building by Laws (UBBL) 1984 and Sarawak Building Ordinance (SBO) 1994 must be seriously adhered to.

Such technical considerations must be adopted by all parties — fire strategists, fire chiefs, standards institutions, codes of practice and test laboratories – to put the right framework for uniform building design.

In a nutshell, Total Fire Safety means having fire protection and the concept of good and sound fire engineering practices and design strategies.

To be able to live in a safer environment, all parties must play their roles diligently — the authorities, designers, builders, inspectors and occupants.

To put it simply, we can all guarantee our own safety!

Datu Khiruddin Drahman is the Director of Jabatan Bomba dan Penyelamat, Sarawak. Keeping people and buildings safe from fire is his business and keeping people informed of ways how to keep themselves safe is a full time vocation for him.