Fire safety experts: Mandatory smoke detectors a good start, but fire extinguishers needed too

File photo of thick smoke billowing from a HDB flat. PHOTO: THE NEW PAPER
Smoke coming from a 10th-storey unit at Block 32, Holland Close on Nov 2, 2017. ST PHOTO: ARRON LEE

SINGAPORE - Retiree Wong Chee Chiew, 60, who lives in a five-room flat in Tampines, is a model citizen of fire safety.

He has a smoke detector, fire blanket and fire extinguisher in his house, and he makes sure to test the battery in the detector and check the gauge on the extinguisher at least once a year.

"Some people may say that is very expensive, but you cannot calculate your life's worth (that way). If a life is lost, you cannot get it back (no matter) how much you pay," he told The Straits Times.

Yet, fire safety experts say home owners like Mr Wong are rare.

And so, while they welcome the upcoming requirements making it mandatory for new buildings to have smoke detectors from June 2018, they stress that it is only half the battle.

Under the current Fire Code, which is in its seventh edition, residential homes are not required to have fire protection systems, fire extinguishers, water sprinklers or fire alarms. However, the Singapore Civil Defence Force (SCDF) encourages home owners to keep a portable fire extinguisher at home.

Experts called for something more to be done to equip homes with fire extinguishers.

Fire safety manager Nizham Keman, 48, suggested incentivising home owners to keep one at home through discounts for conservancy charges or home fire insurance premiums.

"Among all my friends right now, I can say none of them owns a fire extinguisher at home. Most people don't take fire safety seriously - they won't act if it is not mandatory, but there are always ways to encourage people to get on board," said Mr Nizham.

Having both fire extinguishers and smoke alarms will go a long way in raising fire safety standards at home, he said.

Ms Lili Pan, whose firm Fire Safety SG sells fire safety equipment, agreed, noting that while fire alarms are a good initiative to alert occupants to a fire, they alone are insufficient.

In the United States, smoke alarms sounded in 53 per cent of home fires reported to US fire departments from 2009 to 2013, according to its Consumer Product Safety Commission. The death rate was more than twice as high in homes that did not have working smoke alarms.

In Singapore last year, there were 2,818 reported fires in residential premises. In the same year, fires resulted in 62 fire injuries - 26 smoke inhalation cases and 36 burn cases. There was only one fatality.

There is no data on how many households here have fire extinguishers.

Indeed, many concede that implementing a mandatory fire extinguisher policy could be difficult as they can cost upwards of $100. They also require yearly inspections from authorised inspectors under the current regime. And they also stressed that home owners should not look at smoke detectors as a panacea.

Those devices are not infallible - they can be deactivated by the user or fail to work from the lack of maintenance and battery replacement. Poorly made models could flood the market because they are cheaper too.

Ms Gwen Phoo, 29, marketing manager at safety equipment distributor Falcon Fire, said cheaply produced models can be a problem as they may not be certified according to SCDF's requirements. "But because a lot of Singaporeans think a fire won't happen to them, they will opt for the cheaper option if (it is) left to them to decide," she said.

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