High-rise fire escape ladders not a workable option

While there is no doubting the importance of fire safety, I strongly disagree with the idea of outfitting HDB blocks with ladders (Equip HDB flats with fire escape ladders, by Mr Abel Tan; June 22).

The proposal is unworkable on several counts.

External ladders can just as easily be impeded by fire as existing evacuation routes. In fact, escapees could face greater exposure to flames and fumes, which tend to rise up the sides of buildings.

For residents of high-rise flats, climbing down more than 20 floors presents a daunting physical challenge, even in the absence of a frightening inferno.

Such an escape route would be of little benefit to the elderly and the infirm.

In the United States, where this type of outdoor fire escape is common in older buildings, there is usually only one ladder per block, rather than per apartment, as Mr Tan suggests - any more would entail too high a cost if built to fire-resistant standards, and produce unacceptable clutter.

Instead of ladders, our efforts should be focused on other means of prevention and risk mitigation.

To prevent obstruction of escape routes and permit access by firefighters, key corridors and stairwells should be built of fire-hardened materials such as concrete, and be designed to allow for swift natural ventilation.

Singapore's building code does not mandate the installation of sprinklers in residential tower blocks. The regulations should be amended so that all buildings are equipped with their own fire-suppression systems.

It would also be advisable for all households to install smoke detectors and possess a fire extinguisher.

These measures would prevent smaller household fires from spreading out of control, thereby making high-risk escapes unnecessary.

We should also have confidence in the ability of the Singapore Civil Defence Force to extricate occupants from higher floors using specialist equipment, even in the worst-case scenario.

Paul Chan Poh Hoi

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 27, 2017, with the headline 'High-rise fire escape ladders not a workable option'. Print Edition | Subscribe