05 Aug 2019

Second Reading of the Fire Safety (Amendment) Bill - Speech by Ms Sun Xueling, Senior Parliamentary Secretary, Ministry of Home Affairs and Ministry of National Development

  1. Mr Speaker, on behalf of the Minister for Home Affairs, I beg to move, that the Bill be now read a second time.
  2.  

    Introduction

  3. On 14 June 2017, an ordinary house fire escalated rapidly to an inferno that engulfed the entire Grenfell Tower in London. Firefighters took 60 hours to extinguish the fire. The fire claimed 72 lives, destroyed 151 homes, and rendered more than 200 residents homeless. While the inquiry is still ongoing, fire safety experts have discovered many serious fire safety breaches, such as the installation of over 100 non-compliant fire doors and the use of non-compliant external cladding, which contributed to the tragedy.

     

  4. More recently, on 15 April 2019, a fire broke out at the Notre Dame cathedral and spread rapidly. The fire was put out only after three hours of intense firefighting. While the structure was saved, the cathedral’s spire and most of its roof were destroyed and its upper walls severely damaged. Investigations are still ongoing, but it is already evident that the cathedral lacked fundamental fire-prevention safeguards such as firewalls and sprinkler systems. Some of these safeguards were deliberately omitted due to design considerations, and these regulatory decisions are now being called into question in the aftermath of this tragic loss.

     

  5. These devastating incidents remind us of the catastrophic damage that can be caused by fires, and the importance of strong regulatory regimes to prevent such tragedies in the first place.

     

  6. In Singapore, our fire fatality rate remains low, as compared with like cities such as Hong Kong, London, New York and Tokyo. We have succeeded in reducing it by half from 0.15 fatalities per 100,000 population in 2014, to 0.07 in 2018. In comparison, New York’s fire fatality rate was 15 times higher in 2018, and Tokyo’s was 9 times higher.

     

  7. That said, we should not be complacent, and think we are immune.

     

  8. We would do well to remember the recent blaze at Jalan Buroh, where a fire engulfed a liquid petroleum gas facility about the size of two football fields. One worker perished, and two others were hospitalised for burn injuries. The fire also caused significant damage to property. In fact, it could have been worse, given the large amounts of liquid petroleum gas nearby, and if not for the valiant response by the Singapore Civil Defence Force (SCDF) firefighters.

     

  9. Our fire safety regulatory regime plays an important role in preventing fires and mitigating their impact. Let me briefly explain the regime.

     

  10. The Fire Safety Act sets out general provisions related to fire safety, such as various regulatory requirements and the responsibilities of relevant parties, including industry professionals and building owners.

     

  11. There is also a Code of Practice for Fire Precautions in Buildings, simply known as the “Fire Code”, which sets out specific fire safety standards that must be complied with when a building is being constructed or when it undergoes additions and alterations works, or A&A works. SCDF regularly updates the Fire Code. It was most recently updated in May this year.

     

  12. The Fire Safety Act, on the other hand, was last amended in 2016. It is timely for us to review the Act again.

     

  13. Indeed, in recent years, we have observed developments which give impetus to bringing the Act up to date, among others an increase in the height of buildings and urban density in Singapore, which make firefighting operations even more challenging, as well as increase the potential damage from fires; and the introduction of new building materials and products, which may pose higher fire risks.

     

  14. We have therefore reviewed the Act, and the Amendment Bill will have the following thrusts. One, to enhance the fire safety of buildings in Singapore; two, to increase the accountability of all parties involved in the supply chain for regulated fire safety products; three, to enhance SCDF’s investigative and enforcement powers to prevent and rectify non-compliances; four, to optimise SCDF’s capabilities and resources, by allowing them to focus on the areas which present higher fire safety risks, and outsource more routine and straightforward functions; and five, to provide greater clarity to the industry on fire safety standards.

     

  15. Let me now explain the key amendments.

     

    Key Amendments

    Enhance fire safety of buildings in Singapore

     

  16. I will start with our proposal to enhance the fire safety of buildings in Singapore.

     

  17. Currently, SCDF requires new buildings and buildings undergoing A&A works to conform to the prevailing Fire Code.

     

  18. However, older buildings that have not undergone A&A works are not subject to the latest requirements. Many therefore have not upgraded their fire safety measures for a long time. On top of that, some have occupants with reduced mobility such as the elderly and patients. While these buildings have some measures which provide baseline fire safety, overall, they have a higher fire risk profile. The safety of the occupants and the public who visit such buildings can be enhanced by installing selected upgrades. SCDF needs to be given powers to direct such upgrades.

     

  19. To achieve this, Clause 10 repeals and re-enacts Section 20 and inserts a new Section 20A, which will empower the Commissioner of Civil Defence to issue an order to require building owners to install fire safety measures, if these measures are assessed to be necessary for public safety.

     

  20. SCDF is keenly aware that this will impose additional costs on building owners. In exercising this power, SCDF will be judicious, and will take a risk-based approach in identifying buildings and the fire safety upgrades that will be required of them. For now, we have identified around 500 buildings. These are mostly commercial, industrial and government buildings, based on factors such as the age of the buildings and the profile of the occupants.

     

  21. One example is Ling Kwang Home, which houses elderly residents. The Home was built in 1983, in compliance with the 1982 Fire Code. Since then, newer versions of the Fire Code have introduced additional provisions for healthcare facilities, such as the requirement to have at least two areas of refuge on each floor to facilitate fire evacuation. But as the Home has not undergone A&A works, it has not been subject to these new requirements. For the sake of its residents, the fire safety measures of the Home should be upgraded. SCDF has worked with the Home to identify the critical measures required, and I am pleased to share that the Home has voluntarily commenced works, even though the Bill has not been passed yet.

     

  22. Building owners who encounter practical difficulties may approach SCDF to explore options, and SCDF may provide flexibility on a case-by-case basis. We will also provide an avenue for appeal.

     

    Increase the accountability of parties involved in the supply chain for fire safety products

     

  23. Let me move on to the second proposal, which seeks to prevent and stop the use of non-compliant regulated fire safety products. To do so, we will tighten controls over the entire supply chain.

     

  24. Let me give the background to this proposal. In May 2017, a fire occurred at an industrial building along Toh Guan Road, which resulted in one fatality. SCDF’s investigations found that the composite panels used as the building’s external cladding were not compliant with the required standards, which contributed to the rapid spread of the fire. SCDF then undertook a comprehensive verification of the fire safety of buildings that could potentially have used similar cladding, and found other lapses. We then convened a cladding review panel, which proposed various measures to tighten control over the supply chain.

     

  25. The parties involved in the supply chain for fire safety products include manufacturers and suppliers; laboratories that test the fire safety performance of the products, and issue test reports; certification bodies that review the test reports and issue Certificates of Conformity (CoC) that certify the fire safety performance of the products; and installers of these products.

     

  26. These supply chain actors all have a part to play in making sure that only products and materials that meet SCDF’s prescribed standards in the Fire Code are used for our buildings.

     

  27. However, under the current Fire Safety Act, SCDF can only take limited enforcement actions against some of the parties, for example the owners and occupiers for failing to appoint an appropriate Qualified Person or Fire Safety Engineer to prepare the required plans and supervise fire safety works; any person who commences or carries out or authorises the commencement or carrying out of fire safety works without the approval of Commissioner, or without the supervision of an appropriate Qualified Person or Fire Safety Engineer; and Qualified Persons, Fire Safety Engineers and Registered Inspectors who do not carry out their responsibilities in ensuring that the fire safety works are in accordance with the Act requirements.

     

  28. We cannot prosecute other parties involved in the supply chain, nor can we issue rectification orders, even if the product has been found to be non-compliant. For example, under the current Act, SCDF is unable to take action against the manufacturers and suppliers; the test laboratories that issue a false test report; and the certification bodies that issue a CoC that falsely represents that the product meets the required standards.

     

  29. Clause 26 therefore inserts a new Part five on regulated fire safety products, which will introduce enforcement levers over all actors in the supply chain.

     

  30. The new Section 32C makes it an offence for any person to supply a non-compliant fire safety product; the new Section 32 makes it an offence for any test laboratory to issue a false test report.

     

  31. The new Section 32B makes it an offence for any person who is not an accredited certification body to certify these products, and for accredited certification bodies to falsely issue a certificate of conformity.

     

  32. And when non-compliant products find their way into the market or into our buildings, the new Section 33A empowers SCDF to issue directions to any party with possession, charge or control of the product to recall, cease supply, remove, or dispose of the product, as well as to rectify any contravention.

     

  33. In addition, there may be situations where SCDF reasonably suspects certain products or materials to be non-compliant with the required standards. However, SCDF currently only has the power to order building owners to test the products, whereas there are instances where the culpability may lie with the certification body or the CoC holder.

     

  34. The new Section 33 will therefore empower SCDF to require a certification body or a CoC holder to test any fire safety product, including installed products.

     

  35. If the certification body falsely issues a CoC or does not cancel the CoC after knowing that the product does not meet the applicable standards, or if the party refuses to comply with SCDF’s order to test the product, the new section 33B allows the Commissioner to order the certification body to cancel any existing CoCs.

     

  36. In addition, if the Commissioner has reason to believe that any person is supplying or offering to supply non-compliant fire safety products despite knowing that they are non-compliant, or falsely representing these products to be compliant, he can order the certification body not to issue any more CoCs to this person, including for other products. If the certification body does not comply with SCDF’s orders, the Minister may gazette these products as non-compliant.

     

  37. These new powers will allow SCDF to deem products, which SCDF reasonably suspects to have fire safety risks, to be non-compliant, thereby allowing SCDF to use its enforcement levers.

     

    Enhance SCDF’s investigative and enforcement powers

     

  38. I will now talk about SCDF’s investigative and enforcement powers.

     

  39. Apart from non-compliant fire safety products and materials, fire hazards also pose significant risks to public safety.Examples of fire hazards include overcrowding, non-maintenance of fire safety measures, and obstruction of fire escape routes.They materially increase the likelihood of fires, and the dangers when fires break out.

     

  40. Currently, when dealing with fire hazards, SCDF must first issue a Fire Hazard Abatement Notice and can only take action against the errant parties if they fail to comply with the Notice.

     

  41. Given that some fire hazards may pose serious fire safety risks, Clause 9 inserts two new sections.

     

  42. Section 12A will make it an offence for building owners or occupiers to cause or fail to abate or prevent these fire hazards; and Section 12B will make it an offence for any responsible party to cause any fire safety measure in the premises to not be in proper working order or to cause an obstruction of fire escape routes.

     

  43. This provides SCDF with an additional option of taking immediate prosecutorial action against those responsible for serious fire hazards, rather than being able to only issue a Fire Hazard Abatement Notice.

     

  44. Next, SCDF currently has some powers under the Fire Safety Act to enter premises linked to offences under the Act, to conduct investigations. However, this is not the full suite of powers needed in an investigation. SCDF has to work with the Police to conduct certain tasks, such as to take statements from relevant parties.

     

  45. We will empower SCDF to be able to pursue investigations independently, so as to expedite the investigation process. Clause 7 inserts a new section 8CA, which empowers the Commissioner or an authorised SCDF member to examine persons and require them to attend before SCDF for investigations into any offence under the Act.

     

  46. In addition, Clause 6 amends Section 8 to empower SCDF to enter any premises to obtain evidence related to the breach of a licensing condition by an alarm monitoring services licensee or the commission of any offence under the Act.

     

  47. SCDF is the subject matter expert on fire investigations, and these amendments will facilitate their investigations under the Act.

     

  48. The Bill also proposes to increase the penalties for five serious offences under the Fire Safety Act. These are unauthorised change of use of premises which may then render existing fire safety measures in the building to become inadequate; failure of the Fire Safety Engineer to ensure that the engineering solution proposed for the building satisfies fire safety performance requirements; failure of appointed Qualified Persons to supervise fire safety works; failure of appointed Qualified Persons to submit relevant reports and certificates; and failure of the appointed Registered Inspector to inspect and or verify that fire safety works have been completed according to approved plans.

     

  49. The enhanced penalties will be aligned with similar offences under the Fire Safety Act as well as other Acts such as the Building Control Act and the Planning Act. For example, the penalties for an appointed Registered Inspector who fails to inspect and verify that fire safety works have been completed according to approved plans will be increased from a current maximum fine of $10,000 and/or six-month jail term, to a maximum fine of $100,000 and/or two-year jail term. This was benchmarked to a similar offence of an appointed accredited checker who fails to check detailed structural plans and to verify design calculations under the Building Control Act.

     

    Optimise SCDF’s capabilities and resources

     

  50. I will now explain the fourth set of proposals, that will optimise SCDF’s capabilities and resources, by allowing them to focus on complex areas which pose higher fire safety risks, and outsource more routine and straightforward functions.

     

  51. SCDF conducts fire safety enforcement inspections of buildings. These can be categorised into scheduled and non-scheduled inspections.

     

  52. The fire stations send their officers to conduct scheduled inspections of premises within their jurisdiction, in order to allow the officers to familiarise themselves with the buildings, and provide them with an opportunity to engage the owners and occupiers.

     

  53. On the other hand, non-scheduled inspections arise from ad-hoc feedback. Annually, there are about 4,000 non-scheduled inspections. Around half involve offences that are straightforward and can be easily established through visual inspections. Examples include obstruction to fire exit staircases and non-maintenance of fire extinguishers.

     

  54. To enable our SCDF officers to focus on more complex enforcement inspections, Clause 8 will allow SCDF to appoint suitably-trained individuals to conduct fire safety building inspections and to exercise certain enforcement powers, such as the issuance of Fire Hazard Abatement Notices, for simple and straightforward cases. These appointed officers will be deemed to be public servants for the purposes of the Penal Code in their exercise of these powers.

     

  55. SCDF will exercise careful discretion in the scope of work to be outsourced, and retain control over all fire safety enforcement actions. SCDF will also implement safeguards, such as random audits, and require appointed officers to wear body-worn cameras when they carry out inspections. This will ensure that the appointed officers conduct their inspections professionally, and minimise the risk of any abuse of authority.

     

  56. Next, SCDF relies on third-party fire alarm operators to monitor and verify alarms in higher-risk premises before deploying SCDF’s resources. During the recent Jalan Buroh fire, the alarms at the premises detected the fire and immediately alerted both the fire alarm operator and SCDF. The fire alarm operator quickly confirmed the fire incident, and SCDF then dispatched its resources.

     

  57. Given the important role of alarm operators, as well as the projected 2 to 3 per cent annual increase in demand for such services, Clause 17 inserts a new Part IIIB on the licensing of persons providing alarm monitoring services. This will allow SCDF to regulate the operators, set minimum service standards, and ensure service continuity.

     

    Provide greater clarity to industry

     

  58. Lastly, I will cover proposals that will provide greater clarity to the industry on fire safety requirements.

     

  59. Clause 10 repeals and inserts a new Section 20, which requires designated buildings or classes of buildings to have a Fire Certificate in order to be occupied or used. This will provide clarity and consistency for all emergency preparedness requirements. SCDF will provide a one-off notification to owners of buildings that have been newly-designated.

     

  60. In addition, Clause 2 amends Section 2 to revise the definition of certain terms. For example, the definition of the Fire Code will be amended to make clear that the current version published on SCDF’s website is the latest version. An electronic version of the Fire Code which is published on SCDF’s website will enable faster updates, and facilitate access to the latest Fire Code by the industry.

     

    Conclusion

     

  61. Mr Speaker, Singapore’s low fire fatality rate can also be attributed to our robust fire safety regulatory regime, besides the fire-fighting efforts of our SCDF.

     

  62. The amendments I have spelt out are required to ensure that we continue to have an effective regime, thereby ensuring an even safer Singapore.

     

  63. Mr Speaker, I beg to move.
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