Reflections on recent events, plus the occasional fact
free rant unfiltered by rational argument.
Grenfell Tower is coming to Hong Kong. I'm not being flippant when I make that assertion. Hong Kong has all the conditions for a repeat of the disaster that befell London this summer. Besides, the scale is likely to be much larger. Granted, the combustible cladding that contributed to the rapid spread of the fire is absent from Hong Kong. Yet, other factors are in place to make the risks the same. Bamboo scaffolding and plastic tarpaulins will do the job. Also, don't forget the sheer density of Hong Kong makes multiple fires a probability.
Renowned for having some of the tallest buildings in the world, we also have outdated and unenforced fire regulations. Next is our lack of civil readiness. Civilians are not drilled in fire preparedness, except for the odd fire exercise at work. The government will assert that public announcements warn of the dangers and what to do. But, these are few and infrequent. And, are the messages getting through. Evidence suggests not.
Have you bothered to check the fire reels in your building? Can you locate the reels? Are the escape routes familiar? Could you find them in the dark with smoke swirling? Add to that the lack of sprinklers in our residential buildings, whilst smoke alarms are a rarity.
Hong Kong has had plenty of warning of what could happen. The Garley Building fire of November 1996, caused 41 deaths and left 80 with serious injuries. Our brave firefighters have ladders that will take them to the 10th floor only. All firefighting operations are predicated on firefighters fighting from the inside. Clutter and limited access routes make this a tremulous challenge. A helicopter rescued four people from the Garley Building roof. The helicopter then withdrew after its downwash fanned the flames. Other jurisdictions have helicopters capable of fighting high-rise fires. Whether helicopters adapted to fight fires would have made a difference is debatable. Hong Kong has not pursued that option.
The fire at the Amoycan Industrial Centre mini-storage facility in 2016 killed two firefighters. It took over 100 hours to extinguish. Narrow corridors and a lack of access contributed to this terrible incident. An enquiry found that only five percent of fire hazard notices issued to mini-storage operators were followed. Of 2,548 notices given to the operators of mini-storage facilities, 2,431 were ignored. No further action resulted. By any measure that's a failing enforcement system.
To its credit, the government responded with extra posts for safety enforcement. Whether this has the desired outcome remains to be seen. As far as I’m concerned only appearances in Court and the award of penalties will ensure compliance. It cannot go unremarked that the government’s approach is piecemeal. It’s clear not all the lessons have been learnt. Until the government gets tough our incredibly brave firefighters are put in harms way. This is avoidable.
The governments agenda is driven by recent events. It’s always fighting the last battle. It fails to look forward or be proactive. For example, the current focus is on industrial buildings following the Amoycan fire. Yet, a pro-active review would identify more frightening hazards in Hong Kong. A bit of 'red-teaming' coupled with some 'scenario planning' would flag up the threats. For starters, petrol stations located at the base of high-rise towers. These are a disaster waiting to happen in the heart of the urban area. A misplaced cigarette or electrical spark would detonate a fire bomb. Coupled with this is the rampant illegal parking causing severe obstruction. It’s certain any response would be delayed.
Sub-divided flats and cage homes escalate the risks to a new level of magnitude. Chipboard walls and tight corridors make these buildings a death trap. Dodgy electrical fittings add to the threat. Its well known that landlords seeking to maximise their profits pay little heed to safety. Some passageways are so narrow you need to walk sideways. A firefighter in full kit with his breathing apparatus couldn't make way.
Here the comparisons with the Grenfell Tower fire resonant the loudest. The occupants of these shockingly small homes are Hong Kong’s most disenfranchised people. Most are on minimum wage, either elderly or new arrivals mostly from the mainland. With no political clout, they are ignored. Like the residents of Grenville Tower, these people are invisible to the politicians. Except for a few NGOs no one is pushing stringent regulations to safeguard these most vulnerable of people. It’s known that one minister’s family is a landlord for several sub-divided flats. What does that tell you about government reluctance to tackle the issue?
No doubt after a fire, with families and old folks incinerated, the government will come out all earnest about things need to change. We will witness their teary eyed performances as they lament the deaths. They will deftly sidestep the question that the situation was avoidable if only the government accepted its responsibilities and acted.
To sum up, Hong Kong’s crowded buildings, both high and low-rise, present a terrible risk if a fire breaks out. You need to make ready your plan of action. Here’s some advice. Now, go away and prepare to survive.
Walter De Havilland is one of the last of the colonial coppers. He served 35 years in the Hong Kong Police.