Many more hospitals are fire hazards, warns researcher

GEORGE TOWN: An urgent fire safety audit is due for all government hospitals (GH), especially the older ones, in the wake of a fire which broke out at the Sultanah Aminah Hospital in Johor this morning, killing six people.

Universiti Sains Malaysia School of Housing, Building and Planning senior lecturer Dr Mohd Zailan Suleiman said through the audit, a fire safety plan could be conceived to prevent future fire threats.

He said the audit would be most useful for older hospitals in the country, as those were built in an era when there was not much focus on fire safety regulations.

“In an audit, you will be able to determine the active and passive fire safety markers in the building. The private hospitals excel in this, as most I have observed have taken active steps to ensure fire safety plans are in place.

“Also, from my research, many hospital staff are not aware of how to handle fire hazards, such as the type of extinguishers to use and where to go in case of an evacuation,” he told FMT.

Zailan co-authored a paper on fire safety management at Malaysian GHs published in an international journal last year.

The paper by Zailan and his colleague Woon Chin Ong, titled “Problems in Implementation of Fire Safety Management in Malaysian Government Hospitals” was published in the Advances in Environmental Biology Journal Vol 9, in March 2015. They studied four general hospitals in Malaysia, but did not name them.

Zailan said the older GHs were built before uniform building bylaws had come into effect. This included the Penang Hospital and those built before the 1970s.

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Mohd Zailan Suleiman

He said one of these buildings’ biggest risks was old wiring apart from locked doors.

“The worst is locked doors at night. When a fire breaks out, how are the patients going to escape? Fire doors must remain (unlocked).”

The Sultanah Aminah Hospital in Johor Bahru affected in this morning’s fire was built in 1938.

Meanwhile, Zailan said some newer hospitals, too, were not free from danger.

He said it was high time the government allocated funds to all general hospitals so that a proper audit could be conducted and a fire safety plan put in place.

“Lack of a proper evacuation plan and locked fire exits are some of the main fire risks plaguing our GHs. If a proper fire safety plan was put in place through an audit, we can steer clear from future tragedies,” he said.

Zailan urged the government to conduct periodical checks on GHs, as stipulated under the Street, Drainage and Building Act 1974.

He said despite Section 85 of the Act allowing periodical building checks, enforcement by the authorities was weak, which likely led to ignorance about fire safety measures at hospitals.

In the study, Zailan and Woon noted that nearly all hospitals researched were careless when it came to fire safety and many were unaware of a fire safety plan, even though one had been mapped out.

Among the problems highlighted were:

  • Fire equipment were blocked. Janitors often used fire hose cabinets as storage units for cleaning tools, as these were located closer compared with their closets;
  • Escape routes were blocked by medical equipment;
  • Fire resistant doors were often left open during the day and locked at night. In the day, the doors were left open, when they were supposed to be shut. At night, the doors were locked over fear of looters. The researchers noted that in case of a fire at night, it would be impossible for patients to escape;
  • Poor smoke detectors. Smoke detectors, the researchers found, were only working in the affected areas, but were not linked to the main building’s alert system. “If the fire is spreading rapidly, the fire authority will find it hard to extinguish them […] the public will find it hard to escape from the building”;
  • Sliding doors and gate-type doors. These doors cannot stop fumes from travelling into other sections of the hospital and may affect others. “The effect of smoke cannot be ignored in a fire accident […] it may kill them and even blind those who are trying to escape the building”; and
  • Use of timber and other wooden materials should be banned. Some hospitals had wallpaper made out of plastic, which should also be banned.