Why It Matters

Lessons from KPE tunnel fire

With about three-quarters of the 12km-long Kallang-Paya Lebar Expressway (KPE) built underground, safety was of key concern when it was opened in 2008.

The Land Transport Authority (LTA) set up an operations control centre, installed closed-circuit television cameras and a fibre-optic heat-detection system, and kept the speed limit lower than that of other expressways, among other safety measures.

But when a taxi caught fire in the KPE tunnel last Tuesday evening, motorists raised concerns about how the authorities handled the incident.

Some confusion was caused when, even after the fire had been put out, messages were still being broadcast in the tunnel asking motorists to leave their vehicles and evacuate on foot. The LTA said there was a lag in its broadcast system, but clarified that its emergency plans kicked in minutes after the fire started. This included activating tunnel ventilation fans to expunge smoke, dispatching emergency services, and instructing motorists in the tunnel and in the area through electronic message signboards, lane-use signs and radio broadcasts.

While the right processes were in place, there are lessons to be learnt. For one thing, the LTA should look into the lag in its tunnel broadcast system.

If inaccurate instructions were disseminated and the fire had escalated, a lot could have gone wrong.

A taxi caught fire in the KPE tunnel in August, triggering an evacuation. A new water-mist fire-fighting system will be installed by 2022.
A taxi caught fire in the KPE tunnel in August, triggering an evacuation. A new water-mist fire-fighting system will be installed by 2022. PHOTO: FACEBOOK/JENZEN CHOW

System lag aside, what was evident was how unprepared some motorists were. It should become second nature for a motorist to know how to react when faced with an emergency like this, in the same way many commuters know what to do when they spot an unattended item in public after years of publicity on the topic. The authorities should relook their publicity materials when the KPE first opened and think of a strategy to disseminate them again.

Given the volume of vehicles, it is unlikely this will be the last time a fire breaks out in one of our tunnels. And in today's uncertain security climate, being prepared can only be a good thing.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 04, 2017, with the headline 'Lessons from KPE tunnel fire'. Print Edition | Subscribe