China’s fire-pro­tec­tion law needs to be en­forced

China Daily (Canada) - - FRONT PAGE - By LI YANG in Shang­hai

One of the world’s tallest apart­ment build­ing, the 86 Torch tower in Dubai, the United Arab Emi­rates, caught fire last week­end as high winds from a sand­storm fanned the flames.

About 100 fire­fight­ers pre­vented the fire on Feb 21 from spread­ing in the tower where more than 2,000 peo­ple live. Three hours af­ter it started, the blaze was put out mainly by in­ter­nal fire­fight­ing fa­cil­i­ties. Thanks to the build­ing’s fire­safety sys­tems and evac­u­a­tion pro­to­cols, no­body was killed.

Dubai is fa­mous for its fire-pro­tec­tion stan­dards in high build­ings, and regular fire­fight­ing train­ing for res­i­dents. High-rise apart­ment build­ings are al­lowed only elec­tric­ity, not nat­u­ral gas for cooking and heat­ing.

The suc­cess­ful fire­fight­ing and zero death toll in Dubai this time should serve as a les­son for Chi­nese peo­ple, who are ac­cus­tomed, if not numbed, to large death tolls in big fires.

A fire in a sweat­shop fac­tory in Kun­shan, Jiangsu prov­ince, on Aug 4 last year claimed 71 lives. A fire in a food pro­cess­ing fac­tory in Shouguang county, Shan­dong prov­ince, on Nov 16 last year killed 18 work­ers. A fire in a mar­ket in Harbin, Hei­longjiang prov­ince, early last month burned more than 20 hours and killed five fire­fight­ers. A fire at a 28-story apart­ment build­ing in Shang­hai’s Jing’an dis­trict killed 58 res­i­dents on Nov 15, 2010. The casualty list goes on.

In such events, sev­eral lo­cal gov­ern­ment of­fi­cials in charge of safety would re­ceive ad­min­is­tra­tive pun­ish­ment, or be dis­missed at worst. Busi­ness­men in charge of a fac­tory or the direc­tor of a work­shop be­come the main scape­goats. The public also seems sat­is­fied with the penalty, and grad­u­ally takes it for granted that when a big fire hap­pens there must be a heavy loss of life.

China has a good fire pro­tec­tion law, a num­ber of fire­fight­ing rules, a big firedepart­ment sys­tem, as well as shame­ful record of big loss of life in fires, be­cause the law, the rules and the sys­tem al­ways fail at the same time. To some ex­tent, many fires were avoid­able and many lives should not have been lost.

But China al­most fails in all the places where Dubai suc­ceeds. Fire en­gine ac­cesses are blocked by pri­vate cars or il­le­gal con­struc­tion. Es­cape tun­nels are locked or clogged. Many peo­ple do not know how to use the limited fire-ex­tin­guish­ing in­stal­la­tions, and there is a lack ba­sic knowl­edge on how to es­cape from fires. Flammable ma­te­ri­als are widely used in high build­ings.

Fire in­spec­tions have be­come a cash cow for fire de­part­ments in many places, with of­fi­cials tak­ing bribes from con­struc­tion com­pa­nies or busi­ness own­ers. In re­turn, the bribers can save a lot of money that should have been spent on fire-ex­tin­guish­ing in­stal­la­tions or more ex­pen­sive fire­proof build­ing ma­te­ri­als. It is the same case with China’s en­vi­ron­men­tal pro­tec­tion ef­fort. En­vi­ron­men­tal watch­dogs live on pol­luters’ bribes, help­ing them save money that should have been used for pol­lu­tion-treat­ment fa­cil­i­ties.

Peo­ple’s aware­ness about fire pro­tec­tion is poor. Although many schools teach stu­dents how to es­cape fires, few of young peo­ple, in­clud­ing the teach­ers, take it se­ri­ously be­cause it’s not a course that can send stu­dents to bet­ter col­leges.

Lo­cal gov­ern­ments are in­vari­ably fans of high-rise build­ings, which are seen as sym­bols of moder­nity and pros­per­ity. By 2012, the num­ber of sky­scrapers above 152 me­ters in China was com­pa­ra­ble to the United States. And more than half of the high- rise build­ings un­der con­struc­tion in the world are in China. The real es­tate bub­ble saw the rapid ex­pan­sion of build­ings in China. But the con­struc­tion qual­ity is poor, as proven by sev­eral earth­quakes in re­cent years.

Many well- pre­served an­cient vil­lages and towns, built with bricks and wood, in China have good fire-pro­tec­tion de­signs, fire-ex­tin­guish­ing in­stal­la­tions and broad es­cape tun­nels. That’s a ma­jor rea­son why they sur­vive hun­dreds of years. When th­ese de­signs, in­stal­la­tions and fa­cil­i­ties are re­moved to cre­ate more space for shops and mod­ern kitchens in com­mer­cial build­ings, the old towns be­come in­creas­ingly im­mune to fires, es­pe­cially un­der heavy pres­sure from the huge num­ber of tourists. In the past two years, at least three an­cient towns in Yun­nan and Hu­nan have been burned to ashes.

Many fires are not ac­ci­dents, but man-made dis­as­ters. Mak­ing its fire-pro­tec­tion law real is the very first step for China to pre­vent such dis­as­ters.

GAO ERQIANG / FOR CHINA DAILY

The high-rise build­ings

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