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How to do better? The burning question

Khuon Narim and Mayuri Mei Lin / Khmer Times Share:
Firefighters conduct a training exercise on the ground in Phnom Penh. However they face new challenges as high-rise buildings outstrip the range of their equipment. Khmer Times reports on how they are adapting. KT/Chor Sokunthea

The Phnom Penh skyline is vastly different today, compared with ten years ago. Back then, buildings were likely to  be only three storeys tall. Some newer buildings perhaps went up to five.
However today, Cambodia’s property sector is booming with high-rise buildings sprouting all across the city, and with it a whole set of new challenges for city authorities.  
“For example if there is a fire on the 32nd floor of a building, it is a difficult problem for us because we don’t have a ladder on our fire trucks long enough to reach that,” says Phnom Penh Municipal Fire Department chief Colonel Prom Yorn.
Col Yorn’s 184 firefighters have 48 trucks to work with, all of which have ladders that only go as high as 40 metres. That’s equivalent to a ten-storey building.
Without the appropriate equipment or government protocols to guide them, the firefighters have had to rely solely on experience and expertise.
“Our forces need more equipment,” says Col Yorn. “But the government has paid attention and  has focus on fire safety as a priority.”
Vattanac Tower in Phnom Penh is 184 metres high while the Twin Trade Centre, which began construction last year, is expected to dwarf everything else at 500 metres and is touted to be the tallest building in Southeast Asia upon completion.
Col Yorn says while fire stations in the city often receive clothes, shoes, hats and various equipment through grants from China and Japan, Updated equipment to fight skyscraper fires is still lacking.
“We need trucks with ladders exceeding 50 metres,” he says.
The Fire Department, however, says the lack of equipment is not a major concern.
“In Phnom Penh, we don’t have equipment for buildings that are taller than eight storeys but we do have experts who are still capable of handling those fires,” says Fire Department director Brigadier General Neth Vantha.
One Phnom Penh firefighter, Soum Kosal, says he and his colleagues work around the lack of high-tech equipment. “We have to think on our feet and use our skills instead. We prop ourselves up on the stairs or find other ways to manoeuvre,” he says.
Nevertheless Mr Kosal admits that improved equipment would help his team put our fires more quickly and minimise damage.
Gen Vantha says skyscraper fires remain a challenge in any country, no matter how advanced the equipment and technology at their disposal. Even in China, where they have 60 metre ladders, they still struggle with skyscraper fires.
As such, he says the onus is on residents and building managers to ensure they have adequate fire safety protocols in place to ensure fires are minimised or at the very least, contained.
“To handle or even prevent fires at tall buildings, the owner of the building has to set up an automatic fire system like sprinklers and they should also cooperate well with our forces when rescuing people, for instance,” says Gen Vantha.
The call for high-rise buildings to have the basic fire prevention tools at the ready is echoed by Col Yorn.
“Tall buildings should have a fire management system on each floor — sprinklers, smoke detectors, fire alarm speakers and a fire hose reel — to ensure the safety of their customers,” he says.
Lacking robust fire safety protocols also affects the valuation of the property, says Paul Huford, of security firm Azi Safe.
“Not having fire protection decreases the value of a building and will be even more damaging in future as more and more properties with safety equipment become available,” Mr Huford says.
“We work a lot with international companies and organisations who are generally willing to pay more for real estate that has equipment meeting international standards.”
Mr Huford is dismayed that Cambodian authorities still have not imposed fire safety standards on high-rise buildings.
“There is no code that dictates what must be installed in a building,” he says. “In fact high-rise buildings should be fitted with fire detection and alarm systems, fire hydrants and hoses, fire extinguishers, fire pumps and an independent water supply, as well as smoke-sealed stairwells with emergency lighting and exit signage to ensure an escape route for occupants.
“Unfortunately in many countries it has taken major disasters with hundreds of deaths before building codes and regulations are strengthened to ensure safety for occupants. I always advise property owners in Cambodia to be proactive with fire safety regardless of the regulations as you don’t want to be the example when your building catches fire, that brings this change.”
Fire safety regulations exist elsewhere in in the region. The Hong Kong government’s Building Department stipulates that each building must have a clear means of escape, fire resistant construction, a means of access as well as fire safety management protocols. Similar criteria exist in Singapore and Malaysia.
Government protocols in all three countries require buildings to have exits free of clutter or flammable material, functioning alarms as well as easy access and resources for fire fighters.
With high-rise buildings, however, the architecture of the building has also become a key element in firefighting.
For example, architects and engineers in Dubai, a city renowned for its towering structures, have begun including specific firefighting features in their designs. These include buildings made of fire-resistant materials and automated doors which close during a blaze.
Ideally, these features would enable a blaze to “burn itself out” without spreading uncontrollably. However they also give firefighters precious minutes to assess and access the blaze.
Cambodian firefighters often face greater obstacles than their counterparts overseas and invariably have little or no time to assess a blaze and formulate the ideal plan to tackle it.
Col Yorn says the fact Cambodia has many uninsured homeowners, coupled with old buildings made almost entirely of highly flammable materials, makes for a deadly cocktail.
“In other countries, most people have home insurance so they aren’t too concerned about their property,” he says. “Our people are concerned the moment a fire starts because they don’t have insurance so we have to send as many trucks as we can manage to reduce the damage and be effective in extinguishing the fire.”
However these unique set of circumstances have made his firefighters extremely skilled at quickly assessing scenes and formulating plans on the fly.
“We are at a disadvantage but we have the skill so we’ll first send an expert officer to survey the building by smelling the fire and listening to the noise.
“Then they will report any changes to me and I will analyse whether or not the situation is dangerous.
“We know, for instance, that when the smoke turns yellow we must evacuate our men because that means there could be an explosion.”
Col Yorn remains convinced that Cambodian firefighters more than make up for their lack of protocols and equipment. “Things can get terrible,” he says, “but things don’t seem as terrible any more once they have 30 years of experience under their belt.”

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