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Lessons from fire tragedies

At least 38 people died when a blaze tore through a shopping mall in southern Philippines on Dec 23. In South Korea, 29 people died when a fitness centre caught fire on Dec 21. In Mumbai, a rooftop restaurant fire last Friday killed 15 people.

The year-end festive season has been marred by tragedies that are unfortunately not uncommon, with basic fire safety measures absent in many Asian cities that are going through construction booms.

Investigations are still ongoing, but lives could have been saved with a little more effort put into securing human, rather than physical, resources.

A task force investigating the fire that gutted the NCCC Mall in the Philippine city of Davao found that the fourth-floor office where 37 people died was sound-proof, and its fire alarm system was not connected to that of the mall.

The office was also not fully separated from the mall. When the fire started just beneath it, smoke quickly filtered into the office. The mall's spokesman denied there were building code violations. However, it leaves unanswered the question: Why did so many die?

It is also telling that nearly all who died in the fire were employees working the early morning shift at a call centre servicing a survey firm in Connecticut in the United States. The thriving outsourcing industry in the Philippines generates more than US$20 billion (S$27 billion) in annual revenue, resulting in high demand for office space, and many call centres have had to be housed on the top floors of shopping malls. But this can be risky as the usual procedure in malls is to evacuate shoppers first.

The rush to build more is also leading to a spate of fatal safety lapses. This should not be the case as people are even more important than the buildings they work in, and it takes only a little investment and effort to keep them safe and alive.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 01, 2018, with the headline 'Lessons from fire tragedies'. Print Edition | Subscribe