Phnom Penh’s race to fill its skyline with tall buildings has sped past its ability to cope with fires on top floors, Phnom Penh’s fire chief Neth Vantha said.
“Nowadays, we cannot respond to a fire above the 10th floor,” Mr Vantha said last week. “It is a high risk to the people and it will be difficult to help them.”
The municipal department cannot fight fires more than 10 floors up because it lacks engines that can pump water above 30 meters and its tallest ladders only reach 30 meters, Mr Vantha said.
Coupled with inadequate equipment to fight fires in skyscrapers, Mr Vantha said his department has had almost no contact with building developers when it came to advance emergency planning, requirements that international firefighting experts say are essential to prevent disasters.
“We do not have the right to check or punish them if they do not allow us to check [their buildings],” Mr Vantha said.
“It is a risk and dangerous when the fire fighters do not know the map of the building,” he said.
Cambodia’s tallest building, the 28-story Canadia Tower, was recently completed while several other skyscrapers, including ones that will top 40 stories, are currently under construction in Phnom Penh.
Developers at several of the tall buildings in Phnom Penh said that they have or will have the necessary water sprinklers, fires hoses and emergency exits to keep their buildings and occupants safe from the danger of fire, but Mr Vantha said his department has only been contacted by Gold Tower 42, on the corner of Monivong and Sihanouk boulevards, to discuss its fire emergency plans.
The Phnom Penh municipal fire department has at its disposal 10 fire engines and one ladder truck that can reach 30 meters. There are a total of 83 fire fighting staff in the city and, coincidentally, 83 fire hydrants, though Mr Vantha claimed that the Phnom Penh Water Authority often keeps them locked to prevent the theft of water.
While new buildings in Phnom Penh may have installed standpipes, which are vertical pipes used by firefighters to connect to water mains inside a building, which negates the dependency on fire trucks to provide water, such pipes are often incompatible with the department’s hoses, Mr Vantha said.
Shane Lo, deputy chief fire officer at Hong Kong’s Fire Services Department, said this week that knowing the layout of buildings, inspecting their fire systems, working with construction authorities, and giving the final safety certification before a high rise building is occupied are all standard procedures for modern fire departments.
Thirty years ago when Mr Lo first joined the department, Hong Kong had few skyscrapers. But now more than 30,000 high-rise buildings exist and the department has adjusted to the safety demands of skyscraper boom.
In Hong Kong, the fire department inspects buildings at least once a year for safety hazards, working sprinklers, smoke detectors and other issues, he said.
When necessary, fire fighters must access high floors to extinguish blazes and rescue people, but such dangerous work requires the right equipment such as breathing apparatus, high-powered water pumps that feed water to top floors, and importantly, training.
Mr Lo said his fire departments does not depend on building-supplied fire hoses because they can be unreliable. Quality fire department-owned equipment is key.
“To meet the operational challenges for high rise building fires, the fire brigade should supply [fire crews] well both in the area of equipment and staff, otherwise firefighters operations will not be so effective and efficient,” he said, adding that fire drills and safety education also crucial to reduce dangers.
“Over the last ten years, we stepped up the inspections and we can see a noticeable drop in fire incidents in fatalities. It’s very important,” said Mr Lo.
Mr Vantha, the Phnom Penh fire chief, said that his department has no role in certifying building as safe or to compel building owners to submit to safety inspections.
Leong Wai Seng, the senior quantity surveyor for Hanil Engineering & Construction, which is building Gold Tower 42, said that for now the fire department’s concerns are valid.
“We understand that the Cambodia fire fighting is not ready for high-rises, for skyscrapers,” he said last week in an interview. “I think right now its valid, maybe in two or three years they might upgrade [the fire department],” he said.
Mr leong said Gold Tower 42, which is scheduled to finish at the end of 2011 and will be the country’s tallest, will meet the most up-to-date international standards of fire safety installed in the building.
“Hopefully, this will accommodate some of the short comings of the firefighting,” he said.
Chea Vuthy, project manager for Canadia Tower, said deficiencies with the fire department are not a concern when it came to fire safety at his building, which is currently the tallest in the city at 28 floors.
“I think there is fear because the capacity of the fire department. They do not have the capacity to fight above the 10th floor but we have our own system and we do not rely on them,” he said.
That system includes two fire escapes, sprinklers, fire hoses on every floor, and a 28-member maintenance staff with four weeks of training of how the fire-fighting equipment works, Mr Vuthy said.
“They trained how to use [the equipment], how to fight during the fire,” he said. “I don’t think [the training] is enough” but more training can be provided to the staff in time, he added.
So far, no fire drills have taken place to test evacuation plans at the building, which is still largely empty, Mr Vuthy said, noting that the fire department has not yet inspected the building though the department has installed fire extinguishers.
“We are waiting until building is finished. We still have some floors that are not finished. When we are finished we will ask them to come and check,” he said.
Deputy Phnom Penh governor Pa Socheatvong said the need for new equipment for the fire department is a concern and the municipality is seeking donations from China and Japan to modernize the force.
“We don’t have such technology yet,” said
Mr Socheatvong also said that the city has rigorous fire safety guidelines when it comes to constructing building in the city, but declined to give details.
“If you want to know about this, you should not be a journalist. You should go to work in the technical field,” he told a reporter.
Phoeung Sophoan, secretary of state in charge of construction at the Ministry of Land Management, Urban Planning and Construction, agreed that building plans are carefully checked for safety fire provisions but said it is up to the fire department to respond to fires.
“How the firefighters can fight fires above 10 stories? It’s their job to respond,” he said.
Cambodia is not alone in neither its increase in tall buildings or in the questions about the efficacy of its fire fighters.
In Bangladesh, a fire in a 20-story shopping center killed seven people in 2009 raising questions in the country about its ability to deal with the problems of the country’s new architectural phenomenon.
Even in New York City, a city famous for both its fire department and skyscrapers, the Deutsche Bank building fire in 2007 killed two firefighters, and injured 115 others, causing a scandal due partly to a breakdown in the enforcement of fire safety procedures at the 40-story high rise.
Sung Bonna, president of Bonna Realty in Phnom Penh, expressed his own concerns about safety issues related to tall buildings, a topic potential Cambodian buyers frequently ask him about.
“If there is a fire on 15th floor, are the firefighters going to climb up to the 15 floor? This is a big concern,” he said. “A lot of people worry about staying in the high building, what will happen in the fire?”
At Star River, a three-tower complex that will top 45 stories and which broke ground last year in Tonle Bassac commune, Gi-Baek Kim, the mechanical general manager, said their project will have the same safety measures and international standards as towers in South Korea. He added, speaking through an interpreter, that fire hoses will be installed in the buildings and will be very easy to use.
“Even children can use it,” he said.
Still, he added, that while Cambodian firefighters lack equipment, they could still fight fires at high levels.
“I think it’s not so difficult. The problem just depends on their minds. If they are afraid they cannot,” he added.
(Additional reporting by Hul Reaksmey)