Some older buildings could need safety upgrades

Afro Asia Building, a commercial building in Robinson Road, has smoke detectors, a fire alarm system, fire hoses and a fire lift. People's Park Centre has an automatic fire sprinkler system, a wet riser system, an automatic fire alarm system, as well
Afro Asia Building, a commercial building in Robinson Road, has smoke detectors, a fire alarm system, fire hoses and a fire lift. ST PHOTO: TOH WEN LI

The question of whether Singapore's older buildings are safe from fires is under the spotlight, following a deadly tower block fire in west London in June.

And the answer depends on who one asks. The managements of some buildings constructed prior to 1974 - exempting them from current fire safety rules - say they are safe as they have been renovated over time. These older properties need to get fire safety upgrades only if they have had major renovations. If not, they do not have to adhere to the Fire Code, created in 1974 after the Robinsons Department Store fire that year, which killed nine.

The Straits Times checked seven pre-1974 buildings but could access only three: People's Park Complex, People's Park Centre and Afro Asia Building. These have features required by the code, such as fire lifts, hose reels and emergency lighting.

But experts pointed out that their implementation may not be up to date due to factors such as cost and technical constraints.

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There could also be other old buildings that have not undergone major renovations and are in need of fire- safety retrofitting. These could have design issues such as inadequate fire compartmentation - which prevents fire from spreading - and outdated automatic fire sprinkler systems, said SD Architects & Associates founder Chan Kok Way.

The residential building at People's Park Complex comes with a fire lift and a wet riser system. The stairwells can also be used to evacuate residents during an emergency.
People’s Park Centre has an automatic fire sprinkler system, a wet riser system, an automatic fire alarm system, as well as a fire lift. LIANHE WANBAO FILE PHOTO

Mr Chong Kee Sen, former president of The Institution of Engineers, Singapore, noted that older Housing Board blocks have had upgrades such as installing dry risers on each floor. These allow firemen to connect their hoses to draw water. But some pre-1974 buildings may not have had similar upgrades.

In the near future, they may all have to. Law and Home Affairs Minister K. Shanmugam said in Parliament last month that the authorities are mulling over legal amendments to require pre-1974 buildings to perform fire-safety upgrades whether or not upgrading works were done. He did not give a timeline.

The authorities were unable to say how many pre-1974 buildings there are. Some have taken action already.

At People's Park Centre in Chinatown, completed around 1973, a building management spokesman said it has been retrofitting the building with fire protection systems from "day one". It has a full stock of features such as wet risers, a firemen lift, an automatic fire sprinkler and a fire alarm system. It employs a building fire safety contractor to ensure all the features are in satisfactory condition, and an engineer does inspections and testing every year.

Afro Asia Building, a commercial building in Robinson Road, has smoke detectors, a fire alarm system, fire hoses and a fire lift. People's Park Centre has an automatic fire sprinkler system, a wet riser system, an automatic fire alarm system, as well
The residential building at People’s Park Complex comes with a fire lift and a wet riser system. The stairwells can also be used to evacuate residents during an emergency. ST PHOTO: NG JUN SEN

The spokesman said: "As a mixed development project which comprises residential apartments, retail spaces and offices, all these fire suppression and warning systems are important and necessary."

But he admitted that too few of its elderly residents take part in annual fire drills, which aim to familiarise them with the evacuation process. Under a quarter of its 400-plus residents turn up each year for the drills, raising concern that some may be helpless in a real emergency.

  • AFRO ASIA BUILDING 

    Commercial building.

    •Completed in the 1960s.

    •The building, where a homicide by fire occurred in 2011, was observed to have smoke detectors, a fire alarm system, fire hoses and a fire lift.

    PEOPLE'S PARK CENTRE

    Mixed-use residential and commercial building.

    •Completed around 1973.

    •According to its building managers, it has an automatic fire sprinkler system, a wet riser system, an automatic fire alarm system and a fire lift.

    PEOPLE'S PARK COMPLEX

    Mixed-use residential and commercial building.

    •The commercial block was completed in 1970, and the residential block in 1973.

    •The commercial shopping mall area of the complex has automatic sprinklers, fire hoses, extinguishers and alarms. The residential building also comes with a fire lift and a wet riser system.

In neighbouring People's Park Complex, completed in 1973, longtime resident A.P. Soo, 70, did not even realise a fire in her building's carpark in 2010 had triggered a mass evacuation. She remained in her 18th-floor corner flat, learning of the incident only later from the news. The flames did not affect her level.

Said Madam Soo, who lives alone: "If there really is a fire, I don't know if I am able to descend all the floors to ground level."

Toh Wen Li

Ng Jun Sen

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 11, 2017, with the headline 'Some older buildings could need safety upgrades'. Print Edition | Subscribe