Published: 05 August 2019
1. Mr Deputy Speaker, I thank Members who have spoken, and for expressing their strong support for the Bill.
2. Members have raised many pertinent points on the importance of enhancing the fire safety of buildings, and strengthening the Singapore Civil Defence Force (SCDF’s) regulatory and enforcement powers to ensure that the fire safety regime continues to stay robust and effective, for a safer Singapore. I will first respond to the comments pertaining to the amendments to the Fire Safety Act, namely tighter regulatory control over the supply chain for regulated fire safety products; appointment of third party officers; and fire safety at public and industrial buildings.
3. I will then discuss the various suggestions Members have made with regard to broader issues relating to fire safety.
Tighter Regulatory Control over Supply Chain of Regulated Fire Safety Products
4. First, on the topic of tightening regulatory control over the supply chain of regulated fire safety products.
5. Mr Patrick Tay and Mr Christopher de Souza asked about the roles and responsibilities of the supply chain actors, and whether the tighter control would increase costs to the industry and building owners.
6. I had earlier spoken on who the supply chain actors are, and their respective roles. SCDF has consulted the affected stakeholders and has worked with them to ensure that the due diligence actions required of them are reasonable and practicable. In our view, these actions are not onerous, and ought to be done even without the amendments to the Fire Safety Act. For example, certification bodies that certify regulated fire safety products should independently check the validity of the test reports submitted by the suppliers, before issuing any Certificate of Conformity (CoC). The amendments serve to crystallise these responsibilities in law and to allow SCDF to take non-compliant parties to task.
7. Dr Chia asked about the audit regime for buildings. SCDF regularly audits and inspects buildings to check that their fire protection systems are in proper working order. If the systems are faulty, SCDF will not renew the building’s Fire Certificate, and the building cannot continue to be occupied. With the proposed amendments, in addition to non-renewal of the Fire Certificates, SCDF will have the power to require regulated fire safety products to be tested and for rectification action to be taken for use of non-compliant products.
8. Mr de Souza also asked if we are enhancing the standards on the processes involving regulated fire safety products. Indeed, we are. For example, SCDF will henceforth require samples of cladding from each project site to be tested, over and above the current annual tests conducted on samples obtained from the warehouses. This ensures that the cladding panels installed at each building are compliant.
9. On this note, I will also address Ms Sylvia Lim’s question on how SCDF had assisted the building owners who were required to rectify the non-compliant claddings arising from the Toh Guan fire. SCDF had worked closely with them in their planning for the rectification works, and ensured that in the interim, fire safety is not compromised. Some building owners requested for more time to complete their rectifications. Where possible, SCDF had accommodated but imposed conditions such as more frequent fire safety checks to ensure that their fire protection systems are in working order. Arising from the Toh Guan fire case, other than the cases I just mentioned, there are no other cases ongoing at the moment.
Appointment of Third Party Officers
10. Several Members spoke about the appointment of third party officers to carry out enforcement tasks on behalf of SCDF. While most support the move to outsource these tasks, some questions were raised on the selection and training of these third party officers, as well as the safeguards to prevent potential abuses of powers and misbehaviours.
11. This move is intended to allow SCDF to focus its limited resources on higher risk areas, so as to bring about better overall fire safety outcomes. While some inspections and enforcement tasks may be outsourced, I would like to assure Members that SCDF will maintain strong oversight over the work done by these appointed third party officers.
12. First, only simple checks will be outsourced, such as checking for any obstruction to escape routes and that emergency lights are in working order. As I mentioned in my earlier speech, there are about 2,000 such inspections annually. At the onset, these third party officers will only be able to exercise powers limited to evidence collection, and in straightforward cases such as obstructions of fire escape route, empowered to make enforcement decisions, including the issuance of fire hazard abatement notices. Until we are confident that these officers are competent in their duties, SCDF will continue to issue composition notices and collect fines. As I mentioned earlier, SCDF is looking to start with a small team of around five third party officers.
13. Second, the third party officers will be selected carefully. SCDF will specify the skills and expertise required, and consider past experience in public regulatory and enforcement work favourably. I note Mr Melvin Yong’s point on the availability of experienced officers in the Labour Movement, and SCDF can certainly consider them. SCDF will also conduct training for the third party vendor and will also be responsible for setting and administering the assessment of these officers. Only officers who meet SCDF’s requirements will be appointed.
14. Third, we will have in place safeguards against potential misbehaviours. The appointed third party officers will be required to don SCDF-approved uniforms, and to display SCDF-issued authority cards while on duty. Similar to outsourced inspection officers from NEA, LTA and MOM, they will also be required to use body-worn cameras when on duty. The cameras will allow SCDF to investigate any allegations of misbehaviour. To Mr Louis Ng’s question on a reporting mechanism for these officers, SCDF will require them to report to SCDF Headquarters at the start and end of their duty, to ensure that they are in proper bearing and to check that they have performed their duties properly.
15. Er Dr Lee Bee Wah asked about audits. SCDF will conduct random audit checks on these appointed third party officers to ensure that they are professional in their discharge of duties. In addition, the appointed third party officers will be deemed as ‘public servants’ for the purposes of the Penal Code. They will be expected to perform at the standards required of all public servants, and be held similarly liable for breaching their public duties. Any person who has been issued with an enforcement notice may appeal to SCDF. Upon review, if the decision made by the third party is assessed to be wrong, SCDF may modify or withdraw the enforcement action that has been made.
16. We appreciate the timely reminder from Ms Jessica Tan and Ms Sylvia Lim that we need to strike a balance between outsourcing simple enforcement tasks to appointed third party officers and still having SCDF officers stay connected with the ground conditions and insights. We will ensure that our officers continue to walk the ground and keep a finger on the pulse of the situation.
Fire Safety at Public and Industrial Buildings
17. I will now address the comments relating to the proposed power for SCDF to require building owners to install fire safety measures. Several members spoke about the need to balance between ensuring fire safety standards of the buildings, and taking a practical approach to help building owners manage the costs.
18. As mentioned in my earlier speech, we are acutely aware of the cost implications on building owners. SCDF will adopt a calibrated and risk-based approach in identifying buildings for mandatory fire safety upgrades. To answer Ms Sylvia Lim’s question, SCDF has limited these upgrades to buildings that have higher fire safety risks, based on factors such as the age of the building, its size, as well as the occupant load and profile. Even within this group, building owners will not have to undertake the full suite of upgrades to meet the prevailing Fire Code requirements, but only install selected critical fire safety measures. This will help building owners manage costs.
19. For example, only healthcare institutions will be required to have at least two compartmented rooms on each floor, as highlighted by Dr Chia. Healthcare institutions have a high concentration of persons with mobility issues, complicating the safe evacuation of all persons out of the building during a fire. These compartmented rooms can serve as safe shelters for those who are unable to evacuate out of the building, while awaiting the arrival of help. We recognise that persons with disabilities and the elderly may also be present at commercial buildings, but they are usually not in high concentration, and can be evacuated out of the building with the help of other able-bodied persons. Furthermore, these buildings are equipped with fire lifts, which can be used to evacuate persons with mobility issues. Requiring the installation of compartmented rooms in these other buildings may therefore impose unnecessary costs on the building owners.
20. Er Dr Lee Bee Wah, Mr Melvin Yong and Mr Christopher de Souza asked how SCDF will help building owners with these upgrades, and how much time will be given for them to comply with the requirements.
21. We are mindful that these are occupied buildings and the costs involved can be high if the upgrades required are extensive. We are also conscious of the fact that there may be constraints, such as costs and site limitations, when carrying out upgrading works.
22. SCDF will work with the building owners to assess the timeframe for compliance, on a case-by-case basis, and is prepared to give building owners up to two years to comply with the requirements. SCDF is also prepared to exercise flexibility to help the building owners meet the requirements. For example, building owners may engage a fire safety engineer to propose alternative solutions, to address fire safety risks. If more time is required, building owners may also request for a timeline extension, and if there is a definite plan for sale or redevelopment in the immediate future, SCDF may consider waiving the requirements. To mitigate the risks in the interim, building owners may be required to undertake other measures, such as conducting more fire drills.
23. Dr Chia spoke on the need to ensure fire safety of buildings, and appealed to SCDF to adhere to its high standards. Indeed, the public’s safety is not something we will take lightly. As much as SCDF wants to be flexible and accommodating to the building owners, we assure Members that SCDF scrutinises all proposals and alternative solutions carefully, to ensure that fire safety standards are maintained.
24. Ms Joan Pereira asked whether this new power will be used to address the problem of rubbish chute fires. Rubbish chute fires are typically minor and given the enclosed area where the fire is, has less risk of spreading and a lower threat to human life. In fact, such fires can be easily put out by members of the public. I am heartened to share that in 2018, about 25 per cent of such fires were successfully extinguished by alert members of the public. We will continue to educate members of public on how to avoid and put out such fires, and will take action against culprits that cause them.
25. Ms Jessica Tan has rightly pointed out that other than the requisite fire safety measures for all buildings, it is also necessary for building owners to be prepared to deal with fire emergencies, such as having fire evacuation plans. This is why SCDF requires public buildings to put in place certain Emergency Preparedness measures, to ensure a high level of readiness amongst the occupants to respond and evacuate in the event of a fire. The measures include an emergency response plan that serves as a contingency plan for fire emergencies, such as an evacuation plan, and the appointment of a fire safety manager to help the building owner ensure a fire-safe environment.
26. As Mr de Souza has highlighted, the definition of ‘public building’ will be amended to refer to any building to which access to the public or a section of the public is allowed. This means that the overcrowding of buildings such as places of worship and schools will constitute a fire hazard and SCDF is empowered to take action to rectify the situation. The definition will also make it clear that even if a building is open only to a specific group of people, it would still be deemed a public building.
27. We have engaged the building owners who are affected by this amendment and notification letters will be sent after the new law kicks in. We will also work closely with the building owners to implement these measures, for the safety of the occupants.
Fire Safety at Residential Premises
28. Let me move on to fire safety at residential premises.
29. Members have provided several suggestions on improving the fire safety of residential premises, including the installation of sprinkler systems, fire-rated doors, smoke detectors and central fire alarm systems. Indeed, these are useful fire safety measures that can help prevent the spread of fires, or enable early evacuation of residents. The Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) and SCDF have considered similar measures in the past, and deliberated deeply on the necessity of these measures in the context of our residences.
30. Let me first explain our assessment of the fire safety risk of residential premises, that informs our fire safety requirements. Residential premises have lower occupancy load compared to industrial and public buildings. Each residential unit is designed as a fire compartment to prevent the spread of fire. Also, residents are more familiar with the layout of the place, fire escape routes are more direct, and are designed to have adequate ventilation. Over the years, additional infrastructure such as rising mains and hosereels have also been installed to aid fire-fighting operations too.
31. At this point, I would like to reiterate the fire statistics. The number of fires at residential premises has decreased by about 14.5 per cent over the past three years. Our fire fatality rate remains low and we have succeeded in reducing it by half from 0.15 fatalities per 100,000 population in 2014, to 0.07 in 2018. The concerns that Members have raised regarding the recent increase in number of fires, are due to one particular source. That is personal mobility devices (PMDs). Senior Minister of State for Transport has, in the Ministerial Statement, shared how MOT intends to address the fire safety risks of PMDs, through measures like bringing forward the deadline for compliance with the UL-2272 standard to 1 July 2020, and the introduction of a mandatory inspection regime for registered e-scooters. The authorities will also strengthen educational campaigns and outreach programmes on safe charging practices, to enhance fire safety at homes. We need to nip the problem in the bud, to stop the fires at its source. We thus have to strictly regulate PMDs and their usage so as to minimise fire hazards.
32. That said, MHA and SCDF will continue to evaluate the risk environment, including taking into account our ageing population. We will work with building owners, including HDB, to assess the necessity to put in place additional measures that Members have suggested, such as sprinkler systems, refuge floors for lower-rise HDB flats, mandatory smoke detectors and mandatory fire-rated doors, regardless of whether internal or external corridor facing. We will also keep in mind the potential cost impact on home owners, should we decide to mandate these requirements, which will require every household to install mandatory fixtures. Households which do not have smoke detectors, or do not require fire-rated doors can decide to purchase one on their own, for peace of mind.
Home Fire Alarm Devices (HFADs) and Central Fire Alarm System, Fire Extinguishers
33. Several Members asked why HFADs are not mandatory for all existing homes and also suggested for HFADs to be connected to a central fire alarm system. Mr Walter Theseira also spoke about providing support to ensure that private residences have them as well.
34. The purpose of having a HFAD within a residential unit is to provide early warning to the occupants inside the house in the event of a fire, so that they can quickly extinguish the fire or evacuate to safety.
35. While there may be some benefits to having HFADs linked to a central fire alarm system to provide early warning to the other residents, there are significant downsides that I think Members should also be made aware of. Given the prevalence of smoke in our daily lives, such as from cooking or fogging activities, HFADs may give off false alarms. To give Members a sense of the potential challenge that we will face with false alarms, SCDF’s records showed that for buildings with central fire alarm systems, there were about 47,000 alarm activations per year, out of which less than one per cent involved a real fire. If many HFADs are connected to a central fire alarm system, the high frequency of false alarms may cause undue stress and disturbance to the residents. We have considered Mr Patrick Tay’s suggestion of imposing charges on homeowners for false alarms. While it may encourage greater care from the homeowners to minimise false alarms, it may also drive other forms of behaviours, such as disconnecting the HFAD from the central fire alarm system, or to completely remove them, so as to avoid false alarms. This will defeat the purpose of having HFADs in the first place. So a balanced approach has to be taken.
36. False alarms could be due to reasons such as non-maintenance of the central fire alarm system, failure of the building owner to request for the alarm system to be temporarily disconnected before engaging in fogging activities, or just simply prank actions by some ill-intentioned persons. Regardless, regular citizens are affected.
37. While we are not mandating that all existing home owners install HFADs in their homes at this point, we strongly encourage our residents to do so. To Ms Joan Pereira’s question on whether there is a list of approved HFADs, we do not endorse any particular model, but we recommend home owners to purchase HFADs with built-in batteries that can last up to ten years. Some of these HFAD suppliers are listed on SCDF’s website.
38. As Ms Irene Quay had highlighted, to support the needy, SCDF is working with HDB and the People’s Association (PA) to install HFADs for existing flats under the Public Rental Scheme for free. That comes up to about 60,000 flats. As installation in existing flats require the permission of flat dwellers, so far 12,000 households have taken up the installation after one year of implementation. We will continue to encourage eligible households to come on board this scheme. Ms Anthea Ong had also pointed out that households with hearing-impaired occupants will not be alerted by the typical HFADs which gives off an audio alarm. To cater to their needs, we will provide these households with HFADs that give visual alerts instead.
39. MHA will also study the need to expand the assistance scheme to broader groups of families, and will work with relevant stakeholders to do so.
40. Some Members also commented on the need for fire extinguishers, fire blankets and certified smoke detectors to be made more accessible and affordable, and proposed for these to be equipped in all homes. While these are not mandatory, we strongly recommend for homeowners to have them at home. Fire extinguishers, for instance, can be purchased at hardware shops in the malls. To Mr Patrick Tay’s question on how the general public can ensure that they are purchasing the right type of extinguisher for their needs, SCDF’s website currently includes material on the types of extinguishers, and a link to a list of companies registered to perform servicing and maintenance of fire extinguishers. Ms Quay also suggested for a fire safety checklist to be considered for homes. We will take these suggestions into consideration.
Cluttering of Passageways and Stairwells; Hoarding
41. Mr Gan Thiam Poh spoke about the fire safety risks arising from hoarding and cluttering of common areas at residential premises. Mr Goh also raised this point, in light of our ageing population.
42. SCDF works closely with HDB and the Town Councils to address these problems. When SCDF receives feedback on hoarding in homes or the presence of cluttering which may constitute a fire hazard, SCDF will notify HDB or the relevant Town Council and will work them to rectify the situation as soon as possible. In particular, Town Councils are responsible for the management of the local common areas, and they are empowered to take action against recalcitrant offenders.
High-Rise Residential Buildings
43. Ms Joan Pereira asked how prepared we are to deal with fires in high-rise residential buildings, and how SCDF can work with grassroots organisations in raising public awareness of fire safety.
44. Indeed, taller buildings present greater challenges for fire-fighting operations. This is why the Fire Code requires super high-rise residential buildings – buildings with more than 40 storeys, to have refuge floors, or temporary holding spaces. These refuge floors serve as safe shelters for evacuees. In addition, such buildings are required to have at least two fire lifts, compared to only one fire lift in most high-rise buildings. Fire lifts can be manually operated by the fire-fighters and can be used to facilitate the evacuation of the less-abled and the elderly. This addresses questions raised by Ms Anthea Ong and Dr Chia Shi-Lu.
45. To address Ms Pereira’s point about working with grassroots organisations, SCDF does work closely with the grassroots leaders on the Community Emergency and Engagement (C2E) Committees and the Community Emergency Response Teams (CERTs), so that they are familiar with the fire safety facilities and are able to facilitate evacuation.
46. Several Members have also spoken on the recent spate of fires involving PMDs, and the need to enhance the fire safety requirements for such devices.
47. As I briefly mentioned earlier, Senior Minister of State for Transport had spoken about MOT’s and LTA’s plans to bring forward the deadline for compliance with UL2272 standard to 1 July 2020. MOT is also planning for incentives to encourage the replacement and disposal of non-certified PMDs which have been found to be involved in most, if not all of the recent spate of PMD fires. I strongly encourage PMD users to switch to UL-2272 certified products as soon as possible, even before the deadline, as the required standard has in place some measures to better safeguard fire safety, such as a system for power supply to be cut off once the battery is fully charged.
48. As for what PMD owners can do to prevent fires, we encourage users to adopt good fire safety habits, such as regularly inspecting batteries for signs of damage and corrosion, and to avoid leaving charging devices unattended for an extended period of time. We will continue to work with LTA to educate the public on good fire safety habits. I would like to take this opportunity to remind PMD users to be vigilant when charging their devices, not to charge their devices or batteries near combustible materials or along escape paths, and not to leave their charging devices unattended for an extended period of time.
Public Education Efforts
49. Other than reviewing and strengthening our laws to ensure the robustness of our fire safety regime, I agree with Ms Anthea Ong that we must harness the power of the community. It is important to focus our efforts in public education and community involvement, to instil good fire safety habits and to help us become a fire-safe community. Ms Pereira, Mr Gan, Mr de Souza, Mr Theseira and Ms Anthea Ong have also touched on the need for public education in their speeches.
50. SCDF engages residents during its regular community roadshows and post-fire door-to-door engagement sessions, to share fire prevention tips and what to do in the event of a fire. SCDF also leverages these community engagement platforms to encourage members of the public to step up as community responders to deal with small fires in the neighbourhood. Mr De Souza asked about the myResponder app. I am pleased to share that the number of registrations on the myResponder app has increased over the years, going up by 75 per cent in 2018.
51. CDF has also developed a suite of educational materials, on various aspects of fire safety, such as “How to Use a Fire Extinguisher”, “Fire Safety at Home”, typical fire hazards at residential premises and dealing with rubbish chute fires. These materials are readily available on SCDF’s website as well.
52. At the local community level, SCDF also works closely with grassroots organisations on community outreach events. Private residential premises are also engaged through the Safety and Security Days.
53. We thank Ms Anthea Ong for her suggestion to work with other groups in our society – the foreign domestic workers and community volunteers. Indeed, foreign domestic workers are part of our community and can be valuable assets in ensuring fire safety at homes. We are continually working to improve and enhance our outreach efforts, and will take this suggestion into consideration.
54. Mr Deputy Speaker, this Bill is a major step towards enhancing our fire safety regime and the safety of the public. I thank Members for their strong support, and for the suggestions raised today. MHA and SCDF will study them carefully and work with relevant agencies and stakeholders, to ensure the continued effectiveness of our fire safety measures that will keep our public safe.
55. Fire safety is also a collective responsibility. We cannot be complacent and take our low fire fatality rate for granted. MHA will continue with our multi-pronged approach to fire safety, and so, apart from enhancing our laws, we will continue with our outreach and community involvement efforts to engage and educate the public on fire safety.
56. Mr Deputy Speaker Sir, I beg to move.