Sun, 26 Jan 2003

Weak city planning blamed for fires

Maria Endah Hulupi and I Wayan Juniartha, The Jakarta Post, Jakarta

A visitor to Jakarta expressed his disbelief at reading news about a fire breaking out and spreading in the rain. For Jakartans, this is nothing new, as the city is indeed prone to fires, even during the rainy season.

Fire-prone Jakarta, as described by the city Fire Department, is a city of skyscrapers without proper fire standards, of ill- planned housing complexes, heavy traffic congestion and limited water supplies from rivers and hydrants. These surely add to the problem, and only fuel rampant outbreaks of fire.

For architect Marco Kusumawijaya, however, the core of the problem lies with city planning, or master planning, and law enforcement of various regulations on fire control.

Marco said that the Jakarta administration had apparently failed to plan and build proper fire-control infrastructure for the city, such as a fire hydrant system and fire stations at strategic locations throughout Jakarta.

The failure, according to Marco, stemmed from the city's poor planning. He even doubted if the administration was really serious about planning.

"We see only temporary measures with regard to spaces in Jakarta. We see temporary shelters for the poor or temporary markets for street vendors, and other temporary places.

"This kind of policy obstructs efforts to make proper planning for Jakarta or build infrastructure for fire control," Marco explained.

Marco also said that the city administration also failed to understand the city's characteristics and therefore, it could not address fire problems in the slums where houses were built neck to neck.

Data at the Jakarta Fire Department shows that densely populated slum areas in the capital are more prone to fires. The city has an average of two to three fires per day, mostly in slum areas.

Fire hazards in slum areas are often compounded by a lack of hydrants, small alleys that prevent the movement of fire engines, and a lack of awareness among residents regarding fire prevention.

Aside from the problems in slum areas, Marco said, fire hazards often come in the form of high-rise buildings, which are not equipped with proper fire controls.

The city actually has a number of bylaws on city planning and fire control, including those specific to high-rise buildings. The problem is weak enforcement, resulting in a high number of casualties whenever a high-rise building catches fire.

Incidents during the May 1998 riots should provide a good lesson for anyone in fire control. Reports show that at least 258 people died after being trapped inside fire-ravaged shopping centers or malls, including Plaza Central Klender in East Jakarta, and Ramayana Plaza and Lippo Karawaci Supermall in Tangerang.

In fact, the city has a detailed regulation on fire safety standards for public buildings such as malls or hotels.

Even before construction commences on a public building, the building owners must get clearance from the city administration for a fire safety system. After the building has been completed, its fire system must be checked by a team of inspectors, including officials from the city Fire Department, to ensure that the building is safe for the public to visit.

According to the Fire Department, a public building must have adequate emergency exits that are free of any obstructions and adequate access for firefighters.

"The problem is that in some buildings the emergency exits are locked, and in some others, especially at traditional markets, the exits are used for storing goods," said Suchali M. Ali from the city Fire Department.

In addition, Suchali said, the building must also be equipped with a fully operational fire control mechanism that is run by building management personnel trained in fire management.

He explained further that the management of high-rise buildings should be able to protect their own buildings by equipping themselves with fire hydrants, an automatic sprinkler system, fire alarms and fire extinguishers.

The equipment should be checked regularly, at least once a year by officials from the Fire Department to ensure that they are up to standard and are functioning.

Yoni Aryoni, another staff at the Fire Department, said that any building failing to meet fire management standards would be given warning letters. If the building management failed to respond promptly after the second warning letter, they would be penalized.

"But so far, no one has been fined or penalized," Yoni said.

When a fire alarm rings:

- Immediately grab important belongings or medicines.

- Be calm and do not panic. Leave the room and head straight to the emergency exit. Do not use elevators or lifts.

- Or, follow instructions from floor wardens or security personnel who are trained in fire evacuation.

Tips on fire prevention:

- Do not discard lit cigarettes into garbage cans filled with papers or other combustible objects.

- Do not store goods in stairwells, corridors or near emergency exits.

- Do not accumulate or stock unnecessary objects in a building, as it can increase the risk of fire.

- Periodically check the electrical installation for fire hazards.

- Do not plug too many electrical appliances into a single socket.

- Do not leave unattended any electronic appliances that are switched on, or lit stoves and candles.

- Keep flammable objects, chemicals and matches out of children's reach.