Saturday, 12 August 2017

All new homes to have smoke alarms from June 2018

Updated Fire Code to be released mid-next year; costs likely to be borne by home buyers
By Ng Jun Sen and Toh Wen Li, The Straits Times, 11 Aug 2017

All newly built homes - Housing Board flats as well as private residences - will have to be installed with smoke detectors from next June, when an updated Fire Code is released, The Straits Times understands.

Called a home smoke alarm, the device costs between $60 and $80 for a basic version. Installation could cost another $50 or so.

The costs will likely be borne by home buyers, though the authorities, led by the Singapore Civil Defence Force (SCDF), are working with grassroots leaders to identify elderly and needy households that need financial help in doing so.

The battery-operated devices are designed to alert occupants when they sense smoke, and function independently. They are not connected to emergency services or a central fire alarm system.

Currently, fire alarms are mandatory for commercial, industrial or mixed-use buildings above a certain size. The interiors of homes are currently exempt from this.

ST understands that the change has been in the works for over a year and is not linked to a specific incident. But two-thirds of fires last year - or about 2,800 - took place in homes, with rubbish chute or bin fires being the most common. There were 4,114 fire calls last year, the least recorded since 1978.

When contacted, the SCDF declined comment.

Mr Benedict Koh Yong Pheng, president of the Fire Safety Managers' Association, which represents fire safety managers here, said the authorities have been encouraging the voluntary use of fire alarms and fire extinguishers in homes for several years, but the take-up rate has been low.

Making smoke detectors mandatory in new homes will help raise fire safety standards here, said Mr Koh, who is also in the technical committee for the code of practice for electrical fire alarm systems published by SPRING Singapore.

He said: "In many cases of home fires, there have been cases of injuries or death due to smoke inhalation, which could have happened while the occupants were asleep. A localised smoke alarm will alert residents so they can react to the fire at an early stage."

Countries such as Australia have made it mandatory for new and renovated buildings to have smoke alarms. The evidence so far is that it can help: In the United States, the 2015 death rate for fires in homes with working alarms was less than half that of homes without them.

Ideally, a smoke alarm should be installed in each room except the kitchen - to avoid false alarms triggered by smoke from cooking, said Mr Koh. But under the new rules, only one device will likely be mandated per home due to cost concerns, ST understands.

Ms Lili Pan, whose firm Fire Safety SG sells fire safety equipment, said that the cost of installing alarms in multiple rooms could be hundreds of dollars. "It can be quite expensive, which is why people don't buy if they think it is optional," she said.

But fire security services provider Chubb Singapore's general manager James Ong said fire alarm systems can be economical if properly managed by the developer through thorough building assessment, appropriate product installations and regular maintenance.

"(There are) other costs for consideration, including the costs to reputation and compensation if an incident occurs. The cost of lives lost is immeasurable," he added.










Devices limited in their effectiveness, say experts
By Ng Jun Sen and Toh Wen Li, The Straits Times, 11 Aug 2017

While the installation of smoke alarms in homes will increase fire safety standards, they are limited in their effectiveness, said experts.

This is especially as the ones proposed for newly built homes starting next June are independent devices that are typically not linked to a central system or to emergency services - which would be a lot more expensive, noted Mr Dan Chong, director of engineering solutions provider C2D Solutions.

This means that even if the alarm sounds in one unit, residents in adjacent units may not be alerted because the devices are not connected to one another, said Fire Safety SG director Lili Pan.

Another concern is that the devices, being very basic, may result in false alarms, said Mr Chong. They may be triggered by activities such as cooking, smoking, fogging or even the burning of joss sticks.

And because each device needs to be tested and have the batteries replaced regularly, it could also be difficult for elderly residents to maintain and service their smoke alarms.

Ms Pan said: "There are many challenges involved for elderly or handicapped occupants to maintain their smoke alarm devices installed on the ceiling - which typically involves manual battery changes and pressing a test button on the device.

"Perhaps there should be someone to help install or maintain them for this group of users."

Mr Chong, an accredited fire safety engineer, added that able-bodied residents may overlook servicing the detectors too.

Meanwhile, a spokesman for property developer Frasers Centrepoint argued that a well laid-out escape route would be more useful as compared with smoke detectors and fire extinguishers because no maintenance is required.

Mr Chong added that the authorities should properly consider the potential pitfalls of such systems before rolling out the new devices.

"From a safety point of view, these smoke alarms are a good idea. But they have to be sustainable - the implementation is crucial."





Some older buildings could need safety upgrades
By Toh Wen Li, The Straits Times, 11 Aug 2017

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.

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.

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.

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.

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."





Embrace use of smoke alarms
By Ng Jun Sen, The Straits Times, 15 Aug 2017

There is no smoke without fire, which is why all new homes will have to be installed with a smoke alarm from June next year, The Straits Times understands.

This warning device, mandatory in some countries, will help to prevent injuries from fires, two-thirds of which occur in homes.

Last year, 62 people were injured by fire, 26 of whom suffered smoke inhalation.

Said Mr James Ong, general manager of fire safety solutions provider Chubb Singapore: "Often, the most deadly fires are small fires that quietly smoulder and (cause) smoke while people are asleep or are in a different room."

Without the early warning provided by an alarm, people can be overcome by smoke before the fire is even discovered, he added.



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.

But smoke alarms are not foolproof. After all, these basic devices are easily defeated by residents' apathy and neglect. Visitors to countries where smoke alarms are mandatory may sometimes see the devices covered in cling film or with their batteries removed - something I saw in two motels during a recent trip to Australia.

Fire safety experts also said the elderly and those with disabilities could have issues maintaining these ceiling-mounted devices.

A non-working smoke alarm, due to lack of maintenance, is as useful as not having any early warning device at all.

It may not be practical for the authorities to go after everyone who neglects to maintain their smoke alarms. Ease of use, public education as well as cost to the residents are all issues that should be given due consideration.

But while the authorities should tackle these, home owners must play their part by embracing this development, which could well save their lives.




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