Wednesday 9 May 2012

Get tough now on fire hazards in HDB estates

Don't wait till lives are lost; raise penalties and step up enforcement
By Francis Chan, The Straits Times, 8 May 2012

USED mattresses, a refrigerator, a dining table and a set of golf clubs in the first case. As many as 10 bicycles, a mattress and a sofa in the second.

These items, stacked up at two lift landings of HDB flats are believed to have fuelled the two fires that hit the headlines over the weekend.

In the first incident last Friday, 20 families were left temporarily homeless after a fire ravaged the 11th floor corridors of a block of rental flats in Marsiling Road. Eleven residents had to be treated for smoke inhalation and breathlessness.

Two days later, a similar blaze hit the eighth-floor lift landing of Block 52, Toa Payoh Lorong 6. Luckily, no one was hurt.

The outcome in these cases could have been worse. People could have died, which is why it is time to take residential fire hazards more seriously, with tougher enforcement.

The Marsiling fire is believed to have started at the 11th-floor lift landing where the refrigerator and other items had been piled up by an odd-job worker who lived next to it. These items apparently took up half the landing space. The same scene was replicated in the Toa Payoh fire, where a family left bicycles and other items at the lift landing beside their flat.

Other residents in both places say they had lodged complaints with their town councils but the clutter remained.

The rules on such matters are clear: no one is allowed to obstruct common property and open spaces with 'any object, fixture or thing'. Those who insist on flouting the rules can be fined up to $1,000, according to town council by-laws.

These by-laws, like those enacted by Ang Mo Kio Town Council last year, also allow the town council to remove and seize the objects left in common areas. If the owner wants them back, he can pay the expenses incurred by the town council for clearing and storing the clutter. If he fails to do so, the items are disposed of.

The catch lies in the enforcement of these rules which pose various challenges for town council officers enforcing them.

For one thing, town council officials do not usually remove the offending items. When they do their checks, they often meet residents who promise to clear away the clutter or claim the items are not junk but things they use from time to time. The Marsiling resident's hoarded items were meant to be gifts for relatives. He had even wrapped them in plastic and tagged on a 'do not disturb' sign.

Many residents also regard it as their right to 'take over' common corridors, parapets, lift-landings and stairways to dry laundry, put potted plants and store their bicycles or shoe racks.

Despite rules against such encroachment, these scenes are a common sight around any HDB estate. The safety reasons for having clear and open common areas are unfortunately lost on the hoarders.

Investigations into the two fires are ongoing and in time we will find out what exactly sparked the blaze. But it is safe to say that clutter in common areas continues to be a serious fire hazard in HDB estates.

It thus bears repeating that while the total number of fires last year fell to a 15-year low, there were still 4,470 incidents. Of these, 73 per cent were residential fires, up from 71 per cent in 2010. The root cause of many of those fires: Discarded items and rubbish.

This was why the Singapore Civil Defence Force (SCDF) in January came up with its first set of standardised guidelines to town councils for the safe and acceptable use of common areas.

Residents must avoid blocking staircase landings and common corridors. No objects may be placed in corridors less than 1.2m wide. The aim of these guidelines: to ensure a wide and safe access for evacuation and fire-fighting.

Madam Halimah Yacob, an MP for Jurong GRC, had remarked at the time that town councils often have trouble persuading residents to remove their clutter.

This is why more effective deterrents as well as tougher enforcement of the rules must be set in motion. This is of vital importance in Singapore where some 80 per cent of the population live in HDB flats.

One immediate step could be to turn elements of SCDF's guidelines into a law, and empower town councils, which have the most direct contact with home owners, to enforce them. That means they would need to raise their tempo in terms of checks and also be willing to take harsher enforcement action when necessary.

Typically, residents who flout the rules now are slapped with fines of between $100 and $400, less than half the maximum fine. Hefty fines are needed to send a stronger signal to residents.

If more resources are required, town councils could team up with the National Environment Agency (NEA), the HDB and the SCDF in a repeat of a 2007 initiative, which saw them working together to clear shopfront clutter.

That move, aimed at eliminating fire hazards and creating clear fire escape routes at commercial establishments in HDB estates, came after a blaze at a Hougang minimart killed two siblings five years ago. Shop owners found to have breached the rules during those checks were not immediately fined but served with notices to clear the clutter.

While most were unhappy about the restrictions on their businesses, they complied, possibly because failure to do so could result in fines of up to $5,000 under the Town Councils Act.

The plan, like NEA's dengue prevention strategy, worked for two reasons: Stepped up checks and hefty fines.

Under the dengue prevention framework, NEA officers are empowered by law to conduct checks and fine a resident for any mosquito breeding sites found during visits. But unlike the dengue plan which can make a 'tactical switch' from enforcement to education during non- peak transmission periods, fire hazards surface all year round.

Therefore, town councils and other agencies must come together and take a two-pronged approach of not just constant education - which is already done by the SCDF - but also tough enforcement action to prevent such fires.

The residents of Block 4, Marsiling Road and Block 52, Toa Payoh Lorong 6, pulled off a great escape last week, with zero fatalities.

Others may not be as lucky in future.

'Make them see that corridor junk is wrong'
MPs believe education is the way to get HDB residents to cooperate
By Jalelah Abu Baker, The Straits Times, 8 May 2012

EDUCATION - not enforcement - is the way to go when it comes to letting HDB residents know it is not okay to leave things lying around in the corridors.

This was the message echoed by five MPs who spoke to The Straits Times on the issue yesterday.

Only when the residents do not listen, and continue to discard their junk, would they be fined, they said.

The issue has become a hot topic after two recent fires involving mattresses and clothes left at lift landings at Marsiling Drive and Toa Payoh.

The MPs said the problem was a long- standing one but that a gentler method to overcome it was more effective.

'We can issue a summons of up to $1,000, but normally what we do is that we advise them. It's an ongoing effort, we need to change their mindsets,' said Dr Teo Ho Pin, the MP for Bukit Panjang.

In the first three months of this year, there were 160 fires involving discarded items, a slight increase from 148 in the same period last year.

Fires involving discarded items at HDB common spaces formed the second biggest component of residential fires last year, accounting for more than 700 of all 3,254 residential fires, going by statistics released by the Singapore Civil Defence Force (SCDF). The top spot was taken by rubbish fires.

'Residents tend to cooperate,' said Sembawang GRC MP Vikram Nair, 'but for those who don't, we have to take a harder approach and impose penalties.'

Mr Alvin Yeo, an MP for Chua Chu Kang GRC, said enforcement means ensuring that action is taken when necessary, instead of being compassionate.

Dr Teo said that sometimes, residents will argue that the items were left in the common areas temporarily. In such cases, he added, town council officers will assess whether it is safe for them to do so.

Mr Lim Biow Chuan, MP for Mountbatten, said that in his ward, he has noticed residents putting out more things after town council officers had cleared the corridors of discarded items.

Town councils said that their officers check the estates regularly - some once a week, some almost every day - for discarded items. They issue offenders notices at least twice before fining them.

A spokesman for Sembawang-Nee Soon Town Council said that it has issued 680 summonses over the past five years for offences such as obstruction, with offenders fined between $100 and $400.

General manager of Jurong Town Council Ho Thian Poh said the council will issue fines ranging from $50 to $400 in similar cases, but that no one has been fined in the last five years.

The MPs and town councils said they have tried to educate residents, including through posters and newsletters. The SCDF this year started putting up exhibitions at void decks of photographs of scenes from fires.

They also introduced standardised guidelines to town councils stating that HDB residents should avoid blocking staircase landings and common corridors with discarded items.

A 75-year-old retiree, who lives near the Toa Payoh block affected by fire, and gave his name only as Mr Tan, said the authorities should take firmer action.

The MPs said the community can also do more to keep their corridors clear.

'Neighbours can also keep watch and report to the town councils, which will take the appropriate action,' said Dr Teo.

Corridor, lift landing fires in older estates
By Jalelah Abu Baker, Bryna Sim, The Straits Times, 8 May 2012

THE two recent fires in Toa Payoh Lorong 6 and Marsiling Road occurred in Housing Board blocks with rental flats, and in relatively mature estates.

Dr Janil Puthucheary, MP for Pasir Ris-Punggol GRC, said such incidents appear to pop up in older estates.

In such neighbourhoods, it is common to come across corridors and lift landings cluttered with residents' possessions.

He said he does not encounter problems with uncooperative residents in his ward, Punggol West, which consists of newer blocks.

Mountbatten MP Lim Biow Chuan said it is very likely that older people in mature estates may be hoarding items, leading to clutter.

'I don't see such clutter in the newer estates. Younger residents are generally more conscious about keeping property within their own homes,' he added.

Those whose items were burnt in the recent fires said they had good reasons for leaving their things in common areas such as lift landings and corridors.

Mr Samat Kidam, 58, an odd-job worker who lives in Block 4, Marsiling Road, said there was 'no space' in his one-room rental unit for bulky items.

These items, such as mattresses and kitchen appliances, had been given to him by the people he moved furniture for. He had intended to send all the items to his sister in Johor.

Security guard Abdullah Arba'a, 39, whose items were involved in another fire at a lift landing in Block 52, Toa Payoh Lorong 6, said space constraints left him with no choice but to place some items outside his home.

Mr Abdullah lives with his wife, their four children aged two to 10, and his wife's parents in their two-room rental unit where items and clothes are stacked so high that they almost touch the ceiling.

There is hardly any space for the four adults to sleep.

'My wife's parents have been waiting to get a rental flat, and they have no space to put their things so their clothes and kitchen items were left outside,' he said.

He added that he would not have done so if there was enough room in his flat and if he had 'more money' to get a bigger place. He earns $1,200 a month and is the family's sole breadwinner.

Mr Lim said that these residents sometimes may not realise that their actions could pose a fire hazard because they are too preoccupied with earning a living.

A fire may result when smouldering cigarette butts, burning charcoal embers or lit joss sticks are thrown onto flammable materials.

Some town councils offer free services to remove bulky items.

SCDF Guidelines on corridor clutter welcomed

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