Peter Cornish updates us all on how to stay aware and alive in Ho Chi Minh City if faced with a fire emergency.
Britain and much of the world have had a stark reminder of the dangers of fire in high-rise apartment blocks with the tragic inferno at Grenfell Tower in London last June. As the flames engulfed the building, the fire left at least 80 dead and over 70 injured in just a few short hours.
As a result of the Grenfell fire, buildings all over the UK have been inspected, revealing many inadequacies and potential fire traps, despite Britain having some of the tightest fire safety regulations in the world. As many of us return each evening to our homes in Saigon’s tower blocks, do we dare entertain thoughts of fire safety regulations here, or do we just ignore them and hope for the best?
We met up with fire safety manager and trainer, Roy Little, to ask him about his experiences in Vietnam and some basic precautions you can take to protect yourself and family.
“In our home countries, we can expect the fire service to respond to emergencies quickly. In Vietnam it takes longer, and HCMC fire department has inadequate resources and equipment to fight any fire over 5 stories.” Little told me.
All too often, regulations laid out by the law are ignored or don’t meet the basic standards. “The most critical issue is lack of adherence to the law when it comes to fire alert systems and prevention systems. In many cases, even in supposedly luxury high rises, there is limited fire protection.” Little explained.
The main problems are inadequate water sources or fire pumps that are either not installed, not working, or underrated for the building size. “If they meet the law requirements, the fire hoses at the top of the building should be able to pump 100 gallons per minute for minimum of 30 minutes. One trick that contractors do is installing all the required equipment till the inspection is done, then removing it and putting it in another project.” Little continued.
Many of the tragedies resulting from fires are caused because people react the wrong way. Your family is asleep in bed when you’re awakened by the blaring of alarms. What do you do? We are taught to remain in our rooms, unless threatened by fire, because more people die from smoke inhalation that fire itself.
But the longer you remain, the greater the risk that smoke and fire will cut your exit and there will be no way out. The decision is yours, and this is where the importance of planning for an emergency is vital. It’s up to you to make your judgement call, or if you’re not there, your family know when and how to act without your guidance.
Having a plan of what to do and when to go is a life saver. If the fire is in your apartment, get everyone out quickly. If the fire is small, you can try to put it out, but if it spreads quickly give up and get out. If there’s smoke, stay low, keep your mouth covered with a damp cloth and shut doors and windows behind you. Don’t lock doors if you can avoid it, gaining access to your apartment may save someone’s life.
If the fire is on your floor, get out immediately, provided the exit is clear of smoke and flames. Alert others on your floor if you’re able to do so without jeopardising the safety of you and your family. When hearing an alarm and you’re unsure of the extent of the fire, check your apartment door with the back of your hand prior to opening it. If it’s hot, the flames are outside. Stay put. If it’s cool, open the door slowly to check for smoke. If the outside area is smoke free, leave carefully and make your way to the exit stairs or fire escape.
Many buildings in Vietnam lack the fire-proofing we’d expect in our home countries. As with the case of Grenfell Tower, flames can spread quickly through walls and cause rapid spread of fire. In such cases, staying put can prove the less safe option, and you should opt to evacuate unless smoke, heat or flames prevent you from leaving.
When the decision to evacuate is made, make sure your emergency kit is to hand in case you need to take shelter on the way. The basics should include a torch, whistle, pen and paper, bottled water, medical kit and essential documents in a zip bag if they are close at hand. Make sure doors and windows are shut behind you and alert others on the way out if you can. If you encounter smoke, take shelter where you can find it.
Making sure your family is ready in cases of emergency can mean the difference between life and death. Do you have a plan? Are all members of your family familiar with it? Have you drilled and practiced what to do if the worst happens? Have your family practice crawling from their bedrooms to the front door to ensure they are familiar with the layout of your apartment and the exit to the stairs with their eyes closed. Don’t forget to close doors and windows behind you.
Making sure your apartment block’s management team are doing what they should is equally important. Too many tragedies could have been avoided if basic regulations had been adhered to. Building management are required to have emergency evacuations plans; make sure they have and that you are familiar with it.
Emergency exits should be clearly marked and unlocked. Hallways, staircases and emergency exits are frequently blocked with bikes, boxes or children’s buggies that can cause hazards in the event of emergencies. Emergency lighting and fire extinguishers should be placed in appropriate places and it’s the management’s responsibility to ensure they are in working conditions.
If your building is falling short in any of these areas, take it up with your neighbours and make sure the management team are fulfilling their responsibility to you as tenants. “The greatest tool you have is creating a sense of community among the residents of your building complex to demand proper maintenance and care on an ongoing basis.” Little advised. Hopefully you will never have to rely on them. If you do, it’s important that you and your family have the greatest chance of survival.