Friday, 30 June 2017

Guarding against a Grenfell-like fire disaster in Singapore

By Justin Ong, Channel NewsAsia, 28 Jun 2017

The Singapore Civil Defence Force (SCDF) on Tuesday (Jun 27) said it maintains a high standard of fire safety for all buildings, but in the wake of a London inferno believed to have killed 79, experts suggested there could be room to make further enhancements.

The 24-storey Grenfell Tower was gutted by fire on Jun 14, with the residential block’s newly installed cladding - or facade coating - suspected to have aided in the blaze’s intensity and impact.

An SCDF spokesperson told Channel NewsAsia the number of fire fatalities per 100,000 population in Singapore is “among the lowest in the world”, backed by “strict” enforcement of a Fire Code - last reviewed in 2013 - to ensure the safety of occupants in buildings.

“The Fire Code mandates stringent fire safety standards for construction materials and cladding used in all buildings,” said SCDF. “Flammable materials are not allowed to be used as cladding, and construction materials must not allow fire to spread along the material’s surface when ignited.”

“These materials must also undergo testing by accredited laboratories to ensure product integrity and compliance.”

“Specifically for cladding materials, testing is required to be conducted annually,” added the emergency services provider.

SCDF also noted that registered architects and engineers are required to submit building plans to them for approval. The building works must be inspected and endorsed by a registered professional before occupancy.

While praising SCDF’s “detailed” regulations for building fire safety, Professor Richard Liew of the National University of Singapore’s civil and environmental engineering department noted that modern high-rise buildings are being built in more complex ways which introduce potential fire risks that need to be assessed.

“For example, the concave structure is currently typical of building facades in architectural design, but it increases the flame spread rate increases,” he explained. “In addition, window glass facades, as the weakest part of a building, may break easily when subject to a fire, significantly accelerating fire spread.”


When it comes to HDB buildings, every residential apartment is designed as a fire compartment to prevent the spread of fire to adjacent units, said SCDF.

“The fire-rated entrance door, walls and floors of each unit act as effective fire barriers. Common corridors, lift landings and staircases in HDB residential buildings are designed to have open ventilation for smoke dispersal. This is a key design feature of our fire safety measures.”

However, architect and fire safety engineer Chan Kok Way observed that HDB flats are not equipped with fire alarms or sprinkler systems.

The fire safety expert, who’s registered with the SCDF, suggested a bi-annual fire drill to be conducted for HDB residents. Prof Liew concurred, highlighting the importance of making residents familiar with evacuation paths along with prevention and suppression methods as well as the proper use of fire-fighting devices.

SCDF meanwhile explained the measures to be taken in the event of a home fire.

“First, everyone should have a home fire extinguisher to put out small fires. Should the fire escalate and smoke starts to fill up the room, evacuate to safety in an orderly manner and call 995. Do not use the lift,” said the spokesperson.

“It is important to keep the common spaces and exit staircases free of obstruction to facilitate evacuation. Members of the public should report any potential fire hazards to the SCDF.”

“A regular check (on common areas) should be conducted,” Prof Liew proposed. “To ensure no obstruction to firefighting efforts and smooth evacuation in a fire emergency.”

Strong fire safety rules, enforcement in place: SCDF

We refer to the recent letters on fire safety measures.

Singapore has a high standard of fire safety. The number of fire fatalities per 100,000 population is among the lowest in the world.

Singapore has in place robust regulations on fire safety.

The Singapore Civil Defence Force (SCDF) strictly enforces the Fire Code to ensure the safety of occupants in buildings.

The Fire Code mandates stringent fire safety standards for construction materials and cladding used in all buildings.

Flammable materials are not allowed to be used as cladding. Registered architects and engineers are required to submit building plans to the SCDF for approval.

The building works are then inspected and endorsed by a Registered Inspector before the building can be occupied.

Every residential apartment is designed as a fire compartment to prevent the spread of fires to adjacent units. The fire-rated entrance door, walls and floors of each unit act as effective fire barriers. This is a key design feature of our fire safety measures.

All buildings have exit staircases that are well-ventilated and protected against fire penetration.

HDB point blocks require only a single exit staircase for the evacuation of residents because there is not a large number of units on each floor.

The public should observe several important measures in the event of a home fire.

First, everyone should have a home fire extinguisher to put out small fires. Should the fire escalate and smoke start to fill the room, evacuate to safety in an orderly manner and call 995. Do not use the lift.

It is important to keep the common spaces and exit staircases free of obstruction to facilitate evacuation.

As residents would be familiar with the layout of their own homes and buildings, fire drills are not required for residential buildings, as opposed to large non-residential buildings such as shopping centres and offices.

The SCDF actively engages the public to raise awareness on fire safety. For example, the public can pick up life-saving skills, including how to use a fire extinguisher, at Emergency Preparedness Day events or by visiting the Emergency Preparedness Centre located at the Civil Defence Heritage Gallery.

More information on fire safety is available in the online Civil Defence Emergency Handbook, the "mySCDF" mobile application, or via the "I Am Safe" e-learning module.

Leslie Williams (Lieutenant-Colonel)
Senior Assistant Director, Public Affairs Department
Singapore Civil Defence Force
ST Forum, 26 Jun 2017

Are fire safety measures in Singapore good enough?

Mr Goh Geok Leong raises many valid concerns about fire safety and access but misses the heart of the issue (What is the drill in the event of fire in HDB point block? June 16).

In the London fire, the cause of the ferocious blaze appears to be a poor choice of cladding and flammable insulation material.

A similar fire at a building in Jurong East recently damaged the building's external wall cladding (Fire destroys facade of building; woman dead; May 5).

London's tower block fire is a sobering reminder that the fire here could have easily been much worse.

How can we be certain of the level of fire protection installed in buildings? Can the Singapore Civil Defence Force shed light on the competency of the fire protection contractors? Is there any certification and traceability as to who can be held responsible?

How does the Building and Construction Authority ensure that contractors do not use such flammable materials?

With regular reports of fires here, I shudder to think what would happen if one breaks out in one of our high-rise buildings.

I hope the authorities can address these concerns.

S C Tay
ST Forum, 21 Jun 2017

Ensure proper fire safety procedures in HDB blocks

The devastating fire in a London apartment block holds useful lessons for Singapore (At least 12 killed in fire at London tower block; June 15).

Owing to land constraints in Singapore, more and more commercial, hotel and residential buildings are high-rise. This raises the issues of fire prevention and evacuation procedures, as well as the construction materials used.

HDB blocks and executive condominiums (EC) do not seem to have fire alarms or fire sprinkler systems on each floor. Clutter is also common along corridors.

It is compulsory for public buildings to hold fire drills, but there is no such provision for HDB blocks and ECs. There is also no clear evacuation procedure.

One can only imagine the panic and stampede that would take place if a fire were to break out.

Perhaps the town councils could appoint a fire safety manager for high-rise blocks to ensure that fire safety standards and prevention measures are adhered to.

It is important to conduct daily checks, prepare emergency response plans and conduct fire drills to ensure that residents are familiar with the escape routes.

Town councils must prepare fire safety guidebooks for residents.

Attention must also be given to the building materials.

Are fire-resistant or retardant materials used in, for instance, cables, meters and lift mechanisms?

Are these materials non-toxic when they burn?

Smoke can cause choking and lower the visibility, making it difficult for people to escape a fire.

Are there regulations on the types of material used for renovations?

Renovation contractors who are caught removing fire-rated materials or replacing them with cheap non-fire-rated ones must be taken to task with heavy penalties and be barred from doing renovation work in HDB flats and ECs.

Fire in high-rise residential buildings can spread unexpectedly fast, trapping people in their homes.

There must be no breach of fire safety rules.

Francis Cheng
ST Forum, 19 Jun 2017

What is the drill in the event of fire in HDB point block?

Watching the London tower block on fire was horrifying. I understand that the fire started on the lower floors and quickly spread to the upper ones.

There is only one exit route in the tower and people trapped inside were asked to stay in their apartments as there was no other way to escape from the fire.

In Singapore, there are many 25-storey HDB point blocks (similar to the London Tower Block) with only one exit route in a block.

In the unfortunate event that something similar happens in an HDB point block, can the relevant authorities advise what the evacuation process for people trapped in the upper floors is?

Should the residents head for the roof top of the block, can that be used as an emergency exit and can people be rescued from there by helicopter?

Can the Housing Board, the Singapore Civil Defence Force or the relevant authorities educate HDB residents on what they should do in the event of a fire?

Goh Geok Leong
ST Forum, 16 Jun 2017

London tower blocks evacuated as 27 buildings fail fire tests
The Straits Times, 24 Jun 2017

LONDON (REUTERS) - Britain said 27 high-rise apartment blocks had failed fire safety checks carried out after the deadly Grenfell Tower blaze, including several in north London where residents were forced to evacuate amid chaotic scenes late on Friday (June 24).

British officials have conducted tests on some 600 high-rise buildings across England after fire ravaged the Grenfell social tower block in west London on June 14, killing at least 79 people in the capital's most deadly blaze since World War Two.

The Department for Communities said 27 apartment blocks had failed tests, from London in the southeast to Manchester in the north and Plymouth on the southwest coast.

Prime Minister Theresa May, who was forced to apologise for the government's initial slow response to the tragedy, said the authorities were now racing to establish what needed to be done.

"In some cases it's possible to take mitigating action," she told Sky news. "In others, it's been necessary for people to move out on a temporary basis and that is what happened in Camden last night."

Some 4,000 residents of the Chalcots Estate in Camden, north London, were told to vacate their apartments on Friday after the Fire Brigade ruled that their tower blocks were unsafe.

Emerging into the streets on a hot night, residents clutched children, pets and small amounts of clothing and food to try to find a bed in a local hotel or with family or friends. Many were directed to inflatable beds laid out on the floor of the local sports hall.

"I know it's difficult but Grenfell changes everything,"Georgia Gould, Leader of Camden Council, said in a statement.

"I don't believe we can take any risks with our residents' safety."

May said the local authority would be given all the means necessary to make sure people had somewhere to stay.

Residents complained of first hearing about the evacuation from the media and getting very short notice to leave from city officials going door-to-door. Not all residents agreed to go, as they felt the evacuation was an over-reaction.


"It was farcical communication," 21-year-old Daniel Tackaberry told Reuters outside a nearby sports centre where the local council had laid out air beds. "You don't get everyone to leave this quickly." Several local councils said they were removing cladding from the facades of buildings that had failed the tests. In Camden, however, the London Fire Brigade found a number of faults, including concern about cladding, faulty fire doors and holes in compartment walls that could help a fire to spread.

Gould, the Camden council's leader, Gould, said it would take up to four weeks to repair the blocks that were evacuated. and that around 4,000 residents were affected.

Police investigating the cause of the 24-storey Grenfell Tower blaze have said the fire started in a fridge but spread rapidly due to the use of external cladding on the building, trapping residents in their beds as they slept.

The cladding has since failed all safety checks and prompted a nationwide review of the materials used on everything from hospitals to hotels and apartment blocks.

The fire has become a flashpoint for public anger at the record of May's Conservative Party in government following austerity-driven cuts to local authority budgets. Grenfell Tower is located in Kensington, one of the richest boroughs in Europe.

Battling to save her position after losing her majority in a June 8 election, May has promised to do everything she can to protect those residents who survived the fire and to improve the quality and safety of public housing in Britain.

British police have said they are considering bringing manslaughter charges over the Grenfell fire.

* Parliament: Old Singapore buildings to upgrade fire-safety in wake of London's tower block fire
Govt reviewing legislative amendments in the wake of recent killer fire at London tower
By Seow Bei Yi, The Straits Times, 5 Jul 2017

In the light of a deadly tower block fire in west London last month, the authorities here are reviewing legislative amendments to require some old buildings in Singapore to perform fire-safety upgrades.

This applies to buildings that were constructed before 1974 and have not had any upgrading works.

The amendments would require these buildings to meet current fire-safety rules, said Home Affairs and Law Minister K. Shanmugam in a written reply on Monday.

He was responding to parliamentary questions from Ms Sylvia Lim (Aljunied GRC), who asked what lessons could be learnt from the London tragedy.

She also asked about measures put in place to reduce the risk of a rapid and lethal fire in high-rise buildings here - particularly those built in the 1970s and 1980s.

Last Friday, it was announced that 149 high-rise buildings in Britain failed fire-safety tests that were carried out after the June 14 fire in Grenfell Tower.

The failed fire-safety tests related to the use of cladding - typically applied on external walls of buildings for weather protection or aesthetics. The speed at which the fire engulfed the 24-storey tower has raised questions about the safety of cladding used in the building.

Addressing MPs' concerns on fire safety and the Grenfell case, Mr Shanmugam said that with the Fire Code introduced in 1974, all buildings here have been required to use cladding of only Class 0 standard. This means that when ignited, the fire will not spread along the surface.

He added that old buildings built with non-compliant cladding, including Housing Board residential blocks built in the 1970s, would also have had to comply with the Fire Code once they carried out alteration and addition works.

"For old buildings that were constructed before 1974 and have not undergone any upgrading works over the years... the Ministry of Home Affairs and Singapore Civil Defence Force (SCDF) are reviewing legislative amendments to require some of (them) to perform fire-safety upgrades," he said.

Elaborating on current rules, Mr Shanmugam said all high-rise buildings in Singapore - above 24m in height and about eight to 10 storeys high - are required to have added fire-safety provisions such as fire lifts. This is in addition to provisions such as fire hose reels, exit staircases and emergency lighting.

Super high-rise residential buildings that exceed 40 storeys require at least one refuge floor for every 20 storeys, Mr Shanmugam added.

These refuge floors have to be fire resistant for at least two hours, serving as a temporary holding space for evacuees while firefighters put out the blaze, he said.

SCDF prioritises the evacuation of occupants on floors affected by the fire, as well as those on the two floors above, said Mr Shanmugam.

Residents in unaffected floors will be advised to stay in their respective units. Such an approach will minimise injury or mishaps resulting from the evacuation process.

Evacuate or stay put if building is on fire?

Situations differ, but it's advisable to pick up fire safety skills from SCDF
By Ng Jun Sen, The Straits Times, 8 Jul 2017

Reader Sim Yen Ng wrote in to askST about fire safety protocols in high-rise buildings, in the wake of the Grenfell Tower fire in London, and whether one should stay put or evacuate. Housing reporter Ng Jun Sen answers.

It is difficult to have a hard- and-fast rule for what to do during a building fire, as every situation is different.

Unless instructed otherwise by rescuers, staying put when an adjacent or nearby unit is on fire is not a good idea in general.

If a neighbouring unit is ablaze and rescuers have not arrived, it is common sense to leave, alert one's neighbours, and evacuate to a refuge floor or to the ground level without using the lifts.

Housing Board blocks, for example, are designed to compartmentalise fires within each residential unit - preventing an inferno from spreading.

On Monday, Home Affairs Minister K. Shanmugam said residents in unaffected floors will be advised by the Singapore Civil Defence Force (SCDF) to stay in their respective homes, thereby minimising injuries or mishaps from the evacuation process. The SCDF will prioritise evacuation of residents on the floor affected by fire, and those on the two floors above as well.

Part of the reason why the fire in Grenfell Tower on June 14 became a tragedy was due to a "stay put" policy, which did not work as the building was not able to compartmentalise the flames.

It is believed that the cladding used on the building might have contributed to its rapid spread, though the full investigation report by London's fire brigade has not yet been released.

Mr Shanmugam said the SCDF will assess if there is a need to make changes to fire safety regulations in Singapore when the findings are out.

Here, buildings that have been built since the introduction of the Fire Code in 1974 can use only cladding of the Class "0" standard, which is the highest-performance class of material with limited combustibility.

The consultants of a building project - either a registered architect or professional engineer - are responsible for making sure safe building materials are used.

Before a building is fit for occupation, an independent inspector will inspect the building to ensure it meets the Fire Code.

Not all buildings built before 1974 meet the fire safety requirements, as the code was developed only that year - following the Robinsons Department Store fire two years before.

Mr Shanmugam said in Parliament that his ministry and the SCDF are studying ways to require these old buildings to undergo fire safety upgrades.

For the public, it is a good idea to participate in SCDF's outreach efforts and pick up important basic fire safety skills.

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