Published: 09:57, April 13, 2024
Government targets fire risks in Hong Kong’s old buildings
By Wu Kunling
A fireman tries to rescue a resident of New Lucky House where a deadly fire broke out on the morning of April 10, 2024, killing five, in Yau Ma Tei, Hong Kong. (PHOTO / CHINA DAILY) 

HONG KONG – The Hong Kong Special Administrative Region government said on Friday that it will accelerate efforts to tackle fire risks in old buildings, including revising laws, enhancing law enforcement, and providing financial and technological support to those in need.

These moves followed the fire at a 60-year-old building in the Jordan neighborhood on Wednesday that claimed five lives and left six still in critical condition.

In response to China Daily’s inquiries, the Building Department said that the government is drafting an amendment bill to the Fire Safety (Buildings) Ordinance that would empower the government to carry out fire safety improvement work on old composite and domestic buildings, and pre-pay the cost. The amendment is expected to be submitted to the Legislative Council this year.

The proposal for the amendment was put forward during a meeting of the LegCo’s Panel on Security on Dec 5. It was prompted by the discovery that as of October, over 60 percent of over 350,000 fire-safety directives issued to over 10,900 buildings had been disregarded or remained unaddressed due to a lack of coordination among owners or insufficient management.

As of 2023, 9,578 buildings in Hong Kong were found to be noncompliant with fire safety directives issued by the department

The Yau Tsim Mong district’s New Lucky House — the scene of Wednesday’s fire — had been one of those buildings, failing to comply with a directive issued in 2008. The Fire Services Department said on Friday that the fire gates on 11 floors in the building were damaged, letting dense smoke enter a stairwell near the main entrance during the fire.

The proposed ordinance amendment aims to speed up the process of upgrading fire safety standards in old buildings. Additionally, a mechanism will also be set up to ensure that the government will recover the fees and costs it incurs in advance for the owners.

As of the end of 2023, 9,578 buildings in Hong Kong were found to be noncompliant with fire safety directives issued by the department. Nearly one-fifth of them, or 1,843, are in Yau Tsim Mong, which has a high population density amid residential and commercial structures.

Currently, owners who fail to comply with the fire safety directives without reasonable justification may receive warning letters from the department and face prosecution. Offenders are liable to a fine of HK$25,000 ($3,190) and further fines of HK$2,500 for each day of noncompliance with the directive.

The department said it will continue to provide financial, technical and coordination support to help owners enhance the fire safety level of their buildings.

The New Lucky House was earlier found that it has yet to complete the required procedures in a notice issued by the Building Department, including a mandatory building inspection — an obligation for every private building 30 years or older in the city.

The department said it will take enforcement action against noncompliance with building inspection notices, adding that authorities have initiated prosecution proceedings against owners of about 170 buildings whose inspection notice period has expired without reasonable explanations since the last quarter of 2023.

The No 3 alarm fire broke out in the 230-unit building at 7:53 am on Wednesday and was contained within two hours. The blaze killed five and injured 40 others.

Preliminary investigations have indicated that the fire may have been triggered by plastic garbage bags and other clutters piled up in a lightwell on the first floor, potentially ignited by a cigarette butt dropped from above, according to government sources.

As of Friday afternoon, parts of the building remained sealed off. Residents were allowed to return accompanied by police officers to retrieve their belongings, but only one person was permitted entry in the building at a time. Some residents said they had waited for more than three hours in the long line outside the building.

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