(Delivered in Parliament on 5 August 2019)
Ageing Society, Ageing HDB Flats, New Technologies
Mr Deputy Speaker Sir, it is credit to the Singapore Civil Defence Force and to the government’s approach to incorporate fire safety provisions at the building design stage that we have one of the lowest fire fatalities rate in the world. This bill will further strengthen our fire safety regime by enhancing SCDF’s regulatory and enforcement powers and optimising SCDF’s resources.
It is commendable that the Ministry believes that, while the number of fire incidents has been stable, the fire safety regulations must be updated regularly to keep pace with the times, especially with evolving fire safety risks. It is crucial to preempt and plug possible developing gaps in the fire safety regime.
There is a developing gap that the bill may not have adequately addressed. This is a gap emerging from the convergence of three trends: one, an ageing society, two, ageing HDB buildings and, three, the adoption of new technologies.
Learning from PMD Fires
Back in November 2017, I asked the Minister for Trade and Industry in Parliament whether the batteries for Personal Mobility Devices are covered under the Consumer Protection (Safety Requirements) Regulations as controlled goods, because the number of fires caused by PMD batteries charging overnight was increasing. SMS Dr Koh Poh Koon acknowledged then that there was a slight increase in incidence of such electric fires and said this was something SPRING could look into.
Since then, the slight increase has become quite a worrying spike. The number of people injured in such fires in residential premises increased to 31 in the first half of 2019 compared to 11 in the first half of 2018. A 41-year old man died recently in July after being rescued from such a fire in a Bukit Batok HDB flat in the wee hours of the night.
The Minister for Transport has already addressed the issue of fires related to PMD batteries in his ministerial statement earlier. It is good that the ban on the use of non-UL2272 PMDs on public paths has been brought forward. Hopefully, this will greatly mitigate the problem of fires involving PMD batteries.
But even as we solve this problem of PMD fires, there will be unexpected fire safety challenges cropping up in the near future with regards to the adoption of new technologies. Our homes are becoming charging points for all kinds of devices and there will be more to come with fast improving drone and smart home technologies.
Furthermore, ageing HDB flats built for Industry 2.0 and 3.0 will face problems with electrical load and lack the most modern fire safety features. An ageing population will also require a rethink of fire safety provisions and contingencies, as seniors are less alert and less mobile in fire situations. I will highlight four issues here in the context of the fire safety provisions enhanced by this Bill.
1. Retrofitting HDB Flats with Smoke Detectors
The first issue is the retrofitting of HDB flats with smoke detectors.
This Bill empowers SCDF to mandate building owners to install critical fire safety upgrades, particularly fire alarm systems. It is said that SCDF will adopt a judicious, risk-based approach and this provision is largely targeted at ageing commercial and industrial buildings.
However, at the same time, the Ministry has acknowledged it is important to install smoke detectors in residential buildings and has mandated the installation of the Home Fire Alarm Device in all new residential homes including HDB flats from June 2018. There is also an exercise to retrofit HFADs to benefit 50,000 needy households in public rental flats for free.
If this is so important, would the SCDF work with HDB to retrofit all public housing flats with HFADs? If it has to be done in phases, as I imagine such a major exercise requires, flats that have undergone or are undergoing the Home Improvement Programme renovations should be retrofitted first. This will benefit the vast majority of the population and protect most Singaporeans.
Afterall, the PMD fires experience has shown us that neighbours are the ones who need to be alerted early to such quick and ferocious fires, even if the fires are contained by units designed as fire compartments. For example, in a PMD-related fire in a flat in Ang Mo Kio last month, 4 people had to be rescued from a neighbouring flat, while another 60 people were evacuated. Perhaps a smoke detector would have done the job of alerting the 4 people early to give them time to evacuate.
2. Upgrades for Seniors Living in HDB Blocks
The second issue is the consideration of upgrades to cater to seniors living in HDB blocks.
The Fire Code has been revised to require super high-rise residential buildings, which go beyond 40 storeys, to have refuge floors with holding areas at 20-storey intervals and two fire lifts to facilitate evacuation of persons with disabilities and seniors by firefighters. However, even this may not be enough in view of ageing HDB flats and the ageing population.
In a fire on the 48th floor at Pinnacle Duxton in May 2018, many residents, especially seniors, chose to use lifts to evacuate despite knowing the risk. A senior citizen aged 64 years walked down three floors before giving up and taking the lift. Many ageing HDB blocks are 10 to 24 storeys high. A senior citizen like the one at Pinnacle Duxton who gave up after walking down 3 floors would face the same problem of evacuating an older, relatively low-rise HDB block.
Would the retrofitting of such blocks with refuge floors with holding areas, say at one of the staircase landing or fire lift lobby of common corridors every 4 to 5 storeys, better cater to an ageing society?
We should also be more concerned with HDB studio apartment and 2-room blocks built for senior citizens. These blocks have smaller units that are packed more closely together, which means a fire could potentially spread more quickly compared to other HDB blocks. This is aggravated by the concentration of senior citizens in such blocks.
I would like to ask the Minister whether the SCDF has a separate protocol or plan when it comes to fire incidents in studio apartment and 2-room HDB blocks housing senior citizens?
I have made the point about retrofitting all HDB flats with smoke detectors. I believe studio apartment and 2-room HDB blocks should be prioritised for such retrofitting, as our senior citizens require protection most urgently. Furthermore, the SCDF should extend the Home Fire Alarm Device (HFAD) Assistance Scheme to HDB dwellers, especially our senior citizens who reside in studio apartments and 2-room flats.
3. Fire Safety Audit Checks on HDB Buildings
The third issue is fire safety audit checks on HDB residential buildings.
This Bill will allow authorized third-party officers to conduct routine fire safety and building inspections and these officers would wear body cameras and be subjected to SCDF audits. This is a good move not only because it frees up SCDF officers for complex enforcement checks, but also because it allows SCDF to scale up routine fire safety checks.
This means two things can be done for ageing HDB flats. First, the frequency of routine fire safety checks can be increased for ageing HDB flats.
Second, SCDF officers can focus on mapping the specific fire risks of ageing HDB blocks in light of the ageing population, so that fire safety features can be customized for each block. As the Ministry would know, HDB block designs are very diverse because of our public housing place-making efforts and efforts to cater to different demographic and income groups. But this also means that fire safety risks differ from block to block.
Also, the actions of residents, by placing items in common corridors or modifying their flats during renovations, affect the fire safety risks differently. An ageing population also means that more items will be placed in common areas and more renovations will be done. General rules will apply, but there will be varied situations that require on-the-ground interpretation. This will require SCDF to conduct more complex inspections.
Other than mapping the fire risks of ageing HDB blocks, there is also the need to map the specific risks of HDB blocks with ageing residential profile. With new big data and data visualization technologies, it should not be too difficult for HDB to provide regularly updated information to SCDF on HDB blocks that house more senior citizens across the city.
Armed with such knowledge, the SCDF and the police could deploy additional resources to assist in evacuation and support of senior citizens in the event of fire in blocks with higher concentrations of elderly residents. If this is going to be a protocol for the SCDF and the police, it would be important to communicate this to Singaporeans for peace of mind.
4. Powers to Enter HDB Flats
The fourth issue is regarding the powers of SCDF officers to enter into HDB flats to investigate and intervene in fire safety violations.
This Bill will strengthen the SCDF’s investigative powers and allow officers to enter any premises that may have evidence linked to FSA offences. The question is, will SCDF officers be empowered to enter into HDB flats to investigate fire safety violations and what are the likely violations in such scenarios?
I am asking this because I have seen a few cases of hoarding while assisting with constituency work in Aljunied GRC, where HDB flats are piled up high with flammables such as newspapers and cardboard boxes. The residents responsible for the collecting and hoarding of such materials are usually suffering from mental illnesses. Neighbours are understandably very concerned about fire safety.
Due to the stigmatisation of mental illnesses, it has been difficult for many of the suffering residents to seek help themselves. Their family members are also at a loss. In one case I witnessed, multiple agencies were involved to try to resolve the matter – social workers from the Family Service Centre, healthcare workers from the Institute of Mental Health, HDB officers, police officers, SCDF officers, Town Council officers, Resident Committee members. However, there was very little they could do unless the suffering resident volunteered to be helped.
I would expect the number of such cases to increase as the society ages, especially with the increase in incidences of dementia. It is a delicate matter. On the one hand, forceful entry into the premises to investigate and intervene into fire risks may aggravate the resident’s condition. On the other hand, the resident and the neighbours cannot be expected to live with the fire risks indefinitely.
I would like to ask whether SCDF would use its powers to enter HDB flats in such scenarios to investigate and intervene to mitigate the fire risks and whether SCDF has developed protocols and plans on how to manage residents suffering from mental conditions but causing fire safety risks in an appropriate manner.
Mr Deputy Speaker Sir, our society is ageing, our HDB flats are ageing, yet we are adopting new technologies that increase fire risk. The spike in PMD fires and injuries caused by the fires is a timely reminder of the convergence of these trends. This Bill is a timely response, but even as we strengthen SCDF’s powers we need to review and update our fire safety regime for the trends taking shape in the near horizon. I support the Bill.