No compromise on fire safety

IT took the loss of 23 lives in yet another fire tragedy at a tahfiz (Islamic religious) school for the Fire and Rescue Department to finally declare publicly that so many of these schools have been found to be unsafe.

Of the 956 tahfiz schools inspected by the Fire and Rescue Department as of last week following the tragedy, more than half of them are at high risk of fire. Despite over 20 such fires in these premises over the last few years, it's been business as usual for them as they think that they have been mostly left "untouched" by the department, better known as Bomba.

Such has been the status quo because it's been the tendency with authorities to be less strict on them given the fact that they are religious institutions and generally the public would not favour any harsh action taken against them.

It's fair to say that had strict enforcement been taken much earlier on fire safety at tahfiz schools, the Sept 13 tragedy at the school in Kuala Lumpur and elsewhere could have been prevented. But now it is most reassuring to hear from Bomba that enough is enough.

Its director-general Datuk Wan Mohd Nor Ibrahim has now warned that all tahfiz schools must take steps to upgrade their fire safety measures to meet stipulated standards or risk being closed down.

"They have to be seriously prepared to face any danger, especially a fire. There must be safety exits ready for use if there is a fire," he said.

To be fair to Bomba, they have not actually closed one eye on such schools, many of which are privately or voluntarily run with very low budgets. But measures that Bomba would normally want the schools to implement were beyond their means.

And everyone would let things run their course until the next tragedy strikes.

After the fire at a religious school in Yan, Kedah, in 1998, even a Royal Commission of Inquiry was set up to probe the worst of such tragedies in which 27 students died. But what happened? Even its findings had hardly been implemented to make such schools any safer.

In hindsight, whether they are tahfiz schools or any other premises, the same safety standards should apply because it involves lives.

In fact, one could say that enforcement on tahfiz schools should be stricter compared with ordinary office blocks because so many students live in dormitories or hostels while office buildings are empty at night.

Most tahfiz school fires occurred while students were asleep and without adequate fire safety, such premises are virtually death traps.

To illustrate the couldn't-care-less attitude of tahfiz school authorities over fire hazards, yet another fire struck at a similar school in Rembau just two weeks after the Sept 13 tragedy but fortunately there were no casualties.

It is here that parents who place their children in tahfiz schools must play their part as well.

I know that when they enrol their kids there they can't be bothered about the safety aspects. This attitude must change as it's the lives of their own children that are at risk.

Their attitude is to leave everything to fate but when tragedy strikes, there is the usual expressions of regret and finger-pointing as well.

Such apathy over safety or fire risks at tahfiz schools is amplified once again by the story told to me by a senior person who runs the school in Kampung Datuk Keramat in Kuala Lumpur where the 21 students and two wardens were burnt to death.

"I had thought that it's the end of our school as parents would now want to pull out their kids. But the opposite happened ... no one is leaving and in fact more parents have approached us to enrol their kids!" he said.

"It's hard to believe but they all told me that one can die anywhere, anytime".

The man said the tragedy was indeed a wake-up call and it's particularly tragic to him as he treated all the 21 kids who perished, like all his other students, as his own children.

Elsewhere, the level of fire safety awareness among Malaysians is still quite low or in many cases non-existent.

In Europe for instance, the first thing to be done when you attend an event at a building is for the building operator to brief people on action to be taken if a fire breaks out. It is not done routinely in this country.

As far as I am concerned, the only people who do this here are at the headquarters of Perbadanan Usahawan Nasional Bhd (PUNB) at KL Sentral. Well done PUNB and we hope this can be a standard operating procedure elsewhere.

Fires have claimed countless lives and in Malaysia especially, most if not all residential houses have to be fixed with iron grilles to deter break-ins, something we don't see in most countries in the world. Needless to say, these grilles are death traps in a fire.

But with the government committing a budget of RM30 million for tahfiz schools following this latest tragedy, let's hope that the money will be used to beef up fire safety measures as this is a matter of utmost priority.