Fire Safety for Elderly and Disability Populations

Anthea Indira Ong
Aug 5, 2019 · 9 min read

Parliamentary Speech for Fire Safety (Amendment) Bill, 6 August 2019

Introduction

Mr Speaker, I stand in support of the Bill. It is crucial that our fire safety laws are regularly updated to respond to the changing nature of fire safety risks and challenges, especially in light of the significant number of fires caused by PMDs in the last month alone.

I understand that the proposed amendments will attend to some 500 old buildings that are mostly commercial and industrial. However, all four fire fatalities last year took place in residential buildings. The majority of the 90 fire injuries attended to by the Singapore Civil Defence Force (SCD) last year involved fires in residential buildings. In addition, a total of 2,411 fire incidents happened in 2018. In contrast, 515 fires took place in non-residential premises. I would therefore argue that there is also a need to update and reinforce fire safety measures in residential buildings, especially for our elderly and disability populations.

Fire Safety for the Elderly at Home

In May this year, an 83-year-old woman who was also a wheelchair user was found dead in her Bukit Panjang flat from a fire sparked off by a lit joss stick. The investigation revealed that she was unlikely to have been able to evacuate on her own when the fire broke out. Her daughter, who had gone out to buy lunch came back to find the flat on fire. Her mother, who had been diagnosed with dementia, was unable to get out of the flat, and succumbed to smoke inhalation. She was one of the four elderly who died in home fires between 2015 and 2017. A 2008 Norwegian study found that those over 70 years old are four times more vulnerable in the event of a fire.

Indeed, the need to address fire safety issues within our built environment is all the more urgent, given that by 2030, one in four of our population will be aged 65 or older. That’s 1.8 million people. By 2050, this number is projected to reach 3.08 million. This means that in three decades, 47% of Singapore’s total population will be 65 years old or older.

Fires are a particular risk for two vulnerable groups within the elderly segment:

  • There are 82 000 people who live with dementia at home, this number is expected to grow beyond 100,000 by 2030. How we support them with fire safety measures could make a big difference to how long they can remain independent.
  • There are 103,758 in 2015, approximately 10% of the population aged 65 and above who are illiterate. These seniors may not understand the fire evacuation maps even if they are prominently displayed in their blocks, in the event of a fire.

Fire safety is clearly not the responsibility of SCDF alone — the responsibility is one to be shared across ministries and the community. I would like to take this opportunity with the debate on this Bill to discuss how we can do more for the vulnerable groups in our community.

Upstream and Preventive Measures

Mr. Speaker, it is safe to say that one fire that happens is one fire too many. Let’s look upstream at some measures that can prevent fires from happening for our vulnerable communities.

First, we should rope in our 250,000-strong foreign domestic workers to be part of this effort because (a) they are often caregivers to the elderly and disability populations, and children; (b) they are often at home during the day and could prove to be a valuable resource should a fire breaks out within the neighbourhood; and © they themselves are at-risk in case of a fire outbreak.

Currently, a foreign domestic worker spends a few weeks being trained in their home country on the usual cleaning and caregiving skills. As far as fire safety training is concerned, they are merely taught to inform their employer and call the emergency hotline number in times of a fire emergency. Nothing else.

Aside from regular foreign domestic workers, employers also have the option of hiring pre-trained domestic workers who have undergone comprehensive training to take care of the elderly. Under the Eldercare Foreign Domestic Worker Scheme, they learn to assist them in daily activities, tend to them with medication and be trained in first aid. Again, fire safety does not feature in the training programme.

The Safety Guidelines for Foreign Domestic Workers by the Ministry of Manpower have a singular focus on window-cleaning, following several high-rise fall incidents in the past. Employers are also encouraged to teach these helpers how to handle electrical appliances and preventive measures such as not touching plugs when hands are wet. Again, fire safety is not included in these guidelines. In addition, Mr. Speaker, our domestic helpers are also not taught how to use a fire extinguisher or the Automated Emergency Defibrillator or AED or how to evacuate properly in the event of an emergency.

Community programmes organised by SCDF like the Community Emergency Preparedness Programmes focus on essential emergency procedures like fire safety and evacuation procedures among first-aid programmes as well. Mr Speaker, such programmes should be part of the training that our foreign domestic workers receive, particularly those working in households with vulnerable persons. We must equip them adequately so that they have the confidence to act decisively in case of fire and other emergencies which can be very valuable in saving lives, especially when caring for the young, elderly and differently-abled.

Second, we must harness the power of community. As we roll out Dementia Friendly Communities, the neighbourhood is aware of issues arising from dementia and can better support these individuals who live alone. The volunteers, also known as Dementia Friends, could support persons with dementia by checking on them regularly and advising them on minimising the risk of fire hazards. In addition, fire safety training should also be given to the caregivers of these households, designated neighbours and these Dementia Friends.

Assistive technologies in the home environment such as gas shut-off valves and sprinkler systems are preventive measures. The Fire Code currently provides that sprinklers be placed in certain areas of HDB buildings but in a response to a parliamentary question posed in July 2018, the Ministry of National Development replied that “SCDF’s assessment at this point in time is that there is no need to install sprinklers within the residential units.” Is there now a new position on this by SCDF, especially considering the 54 fires involving personal mobility devices in the first half of this year — a number that has more than doubled compared to the same period last year?

While I concede that there is a significant financial consideration in installing water sprinklers in each and every household, installing sprinklers in vulnerable households where the resident does not have the ability to quell the fire on his own or evacuate quickly must be an option to be seriously considered. Would the elderly lady on wheelchair in Bukit Panjang have lived if she had a sprinkler in her flat?

Measures in the Event of a Fire

Last but not least, Mr. Speaker, I would like to raise the issue of smoke alarms and fire extinguishers in homes.

Even as the national effort to install smoke detectors in all new residential flats is in place, fire extinguishers and smoke alarm installations are still only highly encouraged by the SCDF, and the take-up rates remain low. Yet, they remain essential tools to stop small blazes from growing bigger. Smoke alarms decrease the probability of fatal fire incidents dramatically. In the U.S. and Japan, after home smoke alarms were made mandatory in 1976 and 2006 respectively, the rate of fatal fire incidents have decreased by 46 percent in the U.S. and 41 percent in Japan.

Britain’s Fire Industry Association also found that 88% of fires tackled with extinguishers were put out. While having a mandatory fire extinguisher policy is believed to be difficult because of financial costs, a risk-based approach is needed. Fires happen more often than we think, Mr. Speaker, as shared earlier especially in residential homes. And when they do, the cost of a fire extinguisher pales in comparison to the material and psychological damages caused.

One of my team members shared this story with me as I was writing this speech. Almost a year ago, he was woken up in the middle of the night by his neighbour whose flat had caught fire from an electric short circuit. The neighbour, despite being in a crisis himself, made sure that his daughter alerted the neighbours to leave their homes in case the fire spreads. The swift response by SCDF ensured that everything was soon under control.

This neighbour and his family were not allowed to go back into their home until the investigations were over. Besides, smoke had spread throughout the flat making it unsafe to occupy. For a few hours, this neighbour and his family were able to rest in my team member’s flat to clean up and compose themselves before their friends came to take them in for the night, and then weeks after.

SCDF conducted various examinations to determine the origin and cause of fire, the police conducted their on-scene investigations, and the insurance company surveyed and assessed the damage. The neighbours engaged companies for the repair and restoration works including the clearing out the smoke, rewiring of the house and painting. During the ordeal, the neighbour and his family felt like ‘refugees’ for that few weeks when they had to seek refuge with their friends.

Mr Speaker, there’s a beautiful story of community and kinship in this heartland encounter which is most heartening. Yet the burning question on my mind when he shared the story was: did his neighbour have a fire extinguisher in his flat? He didn’t. The blaze was so small when it first started from the electric wire, an extinguisher would have quelled it in seconds and the trauma and anguish of many weeks could have been averted.

If mandating for all is not an option, can we consider further incentivising homeowners to equip their homes with fire extinguishers and smoke alarms through offering discounts for conservancy charges or discounts for home fire insurance premiums? Can we offer schemes to subsidise such installations as mandatory for vulnerable households alongside the fire safety training mentioned earlier?

Conclusion

Mr Speaker, the needs of our vulnerable groups must be front and centre in policymaking alongside the rest of the population, including when it comes to fire safety. How do we make sure that the elderly and persons with disabilities, or those with mobility difficulties are provided safe evacuation routes in the event of a fire? How can the Deaf, or hard of hearing become cognizant of a fire if they cannot hear smoke alarms? How can persons with mobility difficulties be evacuated off a high-rise building if lifts are not to be used, and they are unable to take the stairs? What more can we do for persons with dementia at home?

We may not always have the right answers but we mustn’t stop asking the right questions. For that’s the only way to fireproof our future as a caring and inclusive society.

Thank you.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~Anthea Ong is a Nominated Member of Parliament. (A Nominated Member of Parliament (NMP) is a Member of the Parliament of Singapore who is appointed by the President. They are not affiliated to any political party and do not represent any constituency. There are currently nine NMPs in Parliament.)

The multi-sector perspective that comes from her ground immersion of 12 years in different capacities helps her translate single-sector issues and ideas across boundaries without alienating any particular community/group. As an entrepreneur and with many years in business leadership, it is innate in her to discuss social issues with the intent of finding solutions, or at least of exploring possibilities. She champions mental health, diversity and inclusion — and volunteerism in Parliament.

She is also an impact entrepreneur/investor and a passionate mental health advocate, especially in workplace wellbeing. She started WorkWell Leaders Workgroup in May 2018 to bring together top leaders (CXOs, Heads of HR/CSR/D&I) of top employers in Singapore (both public and private) to share, discuss and co-create inclusive practices to promote workplace wellbeing. Anthea is also the founder of Hush TeaBar, Singapore’s 1st silent teabar and a social movement that aims to bring silence, self care and social inclusion into every workplace, every community — with a cup of tea. The Hush Experience is completely led by lovingly-trained Deaf facilitators, supported by a team of Persons with Mental Health Issues (PMHIs).

Follow Anthea Ong on her public page at www.facebook.com/antheaonglaytheng

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