Could It Happen Here?

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Early in the morning of the June 14, 2017 a fire caused by a faulty fridge freezer on the fourth floor of the Grenfell Tower apartments in London caused a catastrophe in which 71 people lost their lives and a further 70 suffered severe injuries. The fire raged for 60 hours before it was finally brought under control.

Could something like this happen here in Indonesia? The simple answer is yes, it could, and more alarmingly, it frequently does. In November 2016 a fire raged through the Neo Soho Development in West Jakarta. The number of casualties is not known but in March this year Jakarta Governor Anies Baswedan was concerned enough to launch a raid on a major hotel in central Jakarta citing the “flaunting of building regulations.” He vowed to inspect a further 80 high-rise developments in Jakarta.

These incidents and accidents will continue to occur unless serious changes to the way these towers are constructed, supervised, and regulated are introduced.

The enquiry into the Grenfell fire has not concluded, however it is likely that outdated fire regulations will be called into question.

Indonesia on the other hand has adopted internationally recognised regulations and codes such as NFPA (the US National Fire Prevention Association). Buildings must by law, be designed according to these codes in order to satisfy permitting requirements. The problem in Indonesia however, is not generally related to regulation or coding but in the sloppy execution, verification and dubious certification of the works. When you add unscrupulous developers, low grade contractors, unethical practices and possibly corruption into the mix the potential for a disaster can be easily appreciated.

This is no joke. In west Bekasi for example, there are apartment towers that have been occupied but with no proper functioning fire life safety systems. One such development includes a fully operational budget hotel. How can this happen in a major city in the 21st century? Such developments are disasters waiting to happen with potential for huge loss of life. More so than collapsed toll roads or sunken ferries. The people responsible for such blatant infringement of the regulations and putting human lives at risk should be held accountable.

As long as unscrupulous developers and their non-compliant projects are “waved through” by government institutions and even supported by government officials, nothing will change. We cannot blame contractors here – they merely play by the rules laid down by their clients. They are under endless pressure to construct more and more cheaply cheaper to the detriment of quality and regulatory compliance.

It is the government and local governments that have to take the lead here. In particular they have to “man up” and ensure that the regulations and codes that are already in place are strictly enforced and that building certification processes are adhered to. They should ensure that those flaunting the laws and issuing certification for properties that blatantly conflict with regulatory requirements are severely punished.

Only once the laws are properly and effectively enforced can criminally minded developers and government officials be brought to justice. Those same developers will then realise there is no choice and they will take regulation and code compliance seriously and contractors will follow suit. In reality, this may take a while to change. In the meantime, what can we as consumers do to protect ourselves? After all we have to live somewhere.

First of all, remember that fire and in particular smoke are the greatest dangers in high rise developments. Seventy percent of all deaths in fires are due to smoke.

If you are considering buying a high-rise apartment outside of Jakarta capital jurisdiction DKI (where regulations are reasonably well enforced) beware! Don’t listen to everything the marketing people tell you. Do your own research. Check out the developer on the web. Does it have a good name or are there numerous complaints? If people are complaining about leaks or cracks there is probably something a lot more worrying hidden behind walls and above ceilings – which is exactly where fire and life safety installations are. Ask for proof that the systems work. Ask to witness a fire drill. Good developers would be happy to demonstrate such systems. If they cannot, simply don’t buy.

Fire extinguishing systems such as hydrants, hosereels and sprinklers are known as “active” systems.  Equally important but not so visible or easy to check are “passive” systems. These are built into the fabric of the building and designed to isolate smoke and fire in “compartments” to prevent their spread. Typically, an apartment will be a fire compartment and the regulations will require that surrounding walls and entrance doors are fire rated accordingly and any gaps sealed. Sadly, in many cases they are not. The regulations governing passive systems are quite complex but ask to speak to the architect who will be able to explain and hopefully confirm compliance.

If all this sounds a little daunting, consider hiring a professional building surveyor or consultant to carry out a due diligence study and report.

If the government takes its responsibilities seriously and enforces the laws and if we as individuals take the trouble to ask questions and check the installations before we buy, there is a chance we can prevent the next “Grenfell” occurring in Indonesia.

The writer is a Construction Manager with 22 years’ experience in Indonesia.

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