Security measures raise fire risks

A team of SA state officials are making surprise fire and safety audit calls at old age homes, hostels and other public facilities after recent fire deaths.

The audit was “commissioned by the Gauteng department of Health and Social Development to find out what state [old age homes] were in, and to allocate appropriate budgets”, the province said in response to allegations of not acting on reports and warnings of contraventions of fire regulations.

Two Gauteng old age homes were closed in August 2011 for “violating human rights”, the provincial department of Health and Social Development said on Tuesday.

Gauteng Health MEC Ntombi Mekgwe said “living conditions in the [two identified] facilities are harmful to the physical and psychological wellbeing of residents and their rights are being grossly violated and compromised.”

The closed private facilities are Mamohau Care Home in Mapleton, Ekurhuleni metro, and DB Old Age Home in the Dickenson Industrial area in Sedibeng. Residents “would be moved to other suitable facilities before the end of August.

Owners had apparently ignored attempts by social workers to help them to comply with fire, health and safety legislation. Contraventions include lack of fencing, and accommodating children and adults in the same areas. DB operates from a former auto panelbeating shop, with no added facilities for residential safety.

In June 2011, 12 women died in a fire at Struisbult Care Centre in Springs, Ekurhuleni Metro, despite an investigation and recommendations by Gauteng officials last year to the centre’s board and management. The place was “in contravention of health and safety regulations”, said Ekurhuleni mayor Mondli Gungubele at the funeral.

In August last year, 22 people died in a fire at the Pieter Wessels old age home in Dunnottar at Nigel, near Springs, Ekurhuleni Metro. Gauteng had given the centre R3.1-m to attend to fire risk and safety problems.

Security raise fire risks

Security and access control measures at most schools, restaurants, bars, hospitals and other public and private facilities, add to fire risks by blocking escape routes.

A school governing body member told that they had contracted a welder to close off all possible escape routes from a hostel, leaving only one gate, operated by a caretaker.

“We were aware that we added to fire and emergency risks, and were in contravention of several pieces of legislation, but our priority was improving security and preventing straying by the young boarders”, the member explained, on condition of anonymity.

Disabled fire exit and signage

A European Commission (EC) directive advises that “it is essential to identify the needs of staff or visitors with disabilities when planning fire safety arrangements and evacuation procedure for the workplace.”

Facilities and signage should comply with EC standards or BS 5588 Part 8: Code of Practice for means of escape for disabled people.

Evacuation of disabled people may involve setting up a safe ‘refuge area’ for people in wheelchairs and wheeled beds, within reach of their facilities and ultimate escape routes.

Fire audit report ‘was ignored’

Opposition party Democratic Alliance said it had “repeatedly warned Gauteng Social Development MEC Ntombi Mekgwe to assess fire prevention, fire fighting equipment and escape routes at old age homes” after seeing an official report in February last year.

The DA had reacted to a report on 426 old age homes, which concluded that one in three old age homes not have required health and safety certificates.

Gauteng Social Development spokesperson Lumka Oliphant said a team of “old age home safety monitors” was formed jointly by officials of departments of Health, Social Development and, Local Government.

Many cities pose fire risks

Durban’s old age homes, children’s homes, businesses, colleges and government departments are fire disaster time bombs. Fire safety officials warned that many small facilities do not have fire equipment or training.

EThekwini metro fire department acting senior manager for fire safety Nonhlanhla Mkhwanazi said 80% of old age homes and social services establishments were compliant, reports The Independent. That means that 20% of public facilities were in contravention, while the figure is as high as 30% in some other cities and towns.
EThekwini fire department has only 17 fire officers in central Durban, conducting inspections every six months.

In Johannesburg’s former CBD, as in old and decaying sectors of many other African cities and towns, the general state of health and safety is poor. Some facilities pose high risks of collapse, slips, trips, fire, and biological infections.

Fire safety cost and enforcement

Installing fire detection systems could cost R60 000, although small, portable, battery-operated smoke detector alarms could be installed and maintained at negligible cost. Installing and maintaining fire response equipment and fire escape systems, however, requires thorough planning, specialist advice, costly equipment, and integration into a sheq risk management system.

Many public, civic and private facilities do not have the awareness, morality, will, budget, or profit margin to comply or seek specialist advice on how to prevent fire tragedies like Mamohau and DB. The public rarely enquire about fire safety, and inspections are either few and fare between at smaller facilities, or compliance notices are not directly linked to prosecution.

Authorities are aware that old age homes were “taking in more people”, but the department did not have a system to monitor occupancy or overcrowding, and was not acting on occupancy levels. –Sources; Gauteng DHSD. EC. Democratic Allliance. The Star. SAPA.

IMAGE; Facilities should include disabled fire exit and signage, aligned to global standards like European Commission (EC) or BS 5588 Part 8: Code of Practice for means of escape for disabled people.

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