In the developed world, it is drilled into every child’s head that smoke detectors save lives. In Cambodia, even basic fire protection is almost nonexistent.
As Phnom Penh gets taller with skyscrapers and high-rise apartments popping up on the horizon, fire safety experts have expressed serious concern that unscrupulous property developers and a lack of proper legislation on fire safety could lead to disaster on a large scale.
Unlike in most of the developed world, where fire extinguishers and sprinkler systems are mandatory for buildings, fire safety is effectively up to the discretion of property owners in Cambodia.
Although a recently approved draft law would place some legal responsibility on business owners to provide safe venues (the exact extent is unclear), no basic fire safety code exists in practice.
“We do not have any policy or issue any regulations for the safety systems of skyscrapers or other high buildings, until the law on the prevention of fire is approved and effectively enforced,” says Phnom Penh fire service director Neth Vantha.
While many property developers adopt international fire safety measures, some choose to ignore them, he adds.
“Based on my observation, some of the skyscrapers and other high buildings have yet to be equipped with safety systems.”
It’s fairly common for apartments in Phnom Penh to come non-equipped with smoke detectors. Muth Phiroum, the owner of the 10-storey Basak Tower luxury apartment building on Sothearos Boulevard, admitted that his building goes not haven them.
“We have fire extinguishers. No smoke detectors. We have sprinklers on the corridors,” he says.
A member of staff at Skyline apartments said that apartment block also did not have them.
Corruption is another problem. Even if fire safety legislation is introduced, dodgy dealing prevents effective enforcement, according to KK Yong, who owns a local company that installs fire safety systems.
Phnom Penh firefighters earn between $100 and $200 per month, depending on seniority. Photograph: Pha Lina/Phnom Penh Post
“Cambodian building owners are rich, they have power. My company can’t just go to them and say, ‘Your building has a bad fire system’,” says Yong, who adds that many building owners put lives at risk by cutting fire safety costs.
The current status quo may eventually cause a catastrophic fire, Yong says.
“Before, there were never high buildings. Now there are a lot. When there is a fire [in a high building], there will be a big problem.”
HOW TO KEEP SAFE
Phnom Penh’s fire service responded to 80 calls last year, with most of them caused by electrical issues and routine activities such as cooking, smoking and incense burning.
Paul Hurford says that preparation is key. With smoke detectors, fire extinguishers and fire blankets installed in a home, the odds of catastrophe are significantly reduced.
“Smoke detectors, especially when the fire is in the middle of the night, are proven to save thousands of lives around the world.”
A decent smoke detector can be purchased for around $11, and the batteries should be replaced annually.
“Pick an event, like Khmer New Year, and remember to change your batteries when it occurs.”
Since fires commonly result from human activities, a fire extinguisher or fire blanket may be enough to end the crisis.
“If you’re prepared with a fire extinguisher or fire blanket, it will easily extinguish the fire with very little damage. But people have to be confident and capable of doing that.”
However, Hurford stressed that not all fire extinguishers are created equal.
“Quite often, a fire extinguisher is not quite a fire extinguisher”
The most reliable fire extinguisher available in Cambodia is the ABC dry powder fire extinguisher, which retails for around $20 and is capable of extinguishing most fires encountered at home or in the workplace. The cheaper, less reliable extinguishers contain BC dry powder and are best avoided.
If you cannot manage to put out the fire yourself, be prepared to evacuate. Since it is common practice in Cambodia to fortify apartments with padlocked metal gates, be sure to keep a gate key in grabbing distance from the door to prevent fumbling around your burning home in search of your key.
Once out of the house, call the national fire emergency hotline on 118. English-language service is reportedly available. Fire service is theoretically free, but money may be expected to change hands. However, Hurford says that the fire department will do their jobs first.
“I don’t endorse people giving money to the fire service, and at the end of the day, it’s pretty unlikely that the fire service will push it with a Westerner anyway,” said Hurford, who added that rumors of corruption in the fire service are often exaggerated.
If you find yourself in a crowded public space when a fire breaks out, you will have to resist the mass panic and calmly make your way to the exit.
“It’s about being aware of your surroundings in the first place, being aware of where your exits are. Being aware that in the event of an emergency, things get very chaotic.”
You must also reconcile your need to breathe with the need to avoid being trampled.
“If you’re struggling to breathe, get down low, then consider your options.”
Most industrialised countries’ laws require fire safety systems in public buildings, with the Building Act 1984 in England and Wales regulating the potential for internal and external fire spread, as well as means of escape and fire service access to structures. In Canada, similar regulation is dictated by the National Fire Code of 2010. No standardised fire code is practised in Cambodia, but safety-conscious developers borrow standards from abroad.
“If you want to build a great building, you have to have international standards,” says Phnom Penh Tower property manager Simon Griffiths.
Due to heavy investment from South Korea, Griffiths said that each floor of the tower includes 60 sprinkler units, 20 heat detectors, 18 smoke detectors and two fire hydrants, in accordance with South Korean safety standards.
But regardless of whether modern high rises are equipped with fire safety technology, the majority of Cambodia is left without the lifesaving equipment that is considered basic in the developed world.
Paul Hurford, who worked as a firefighter in Australia for 15 years before moving to Cambodia, says that basic fire safety technology, such as smoke detectors and fire extinguishers, are ominously rare throughout the country. He also says that local construction trends lend themselves well to breeding fires.
“One of the biggest things people probably need to be aware of is that in Cambodia, fires spread very quickly because buildings are so open,” says Hurford, adding that the concrete buildings will stay standing as everything inside burns.
To remedy the situation, Hurford started the company FireSafe in 2011 to provide affordable fire protection gear and fire safety training courses.
“We’re trying to get cost-effective, good-quality fire equipment to Cambodia,” he says. “We’re bringing in smoke detectors now for about $11, as opposed to a few years ago when you were paying up to $50 just for a domestic smoke detector.”
In addition to selling goods and services to the public, Hurford is also the country director of Australian Firefighters International Relief and Education (AFIRE), which provides training assistance to the Cambodian fire departments and basic community education programs aimed at children.
“We work closely with a lot of the firefighters, so we’ll quite often go along with them and give them a hand,” says Hurford, who adds that AFIRE has trained about 700 Cambodian firefighters.
Firefighters in the city do not currently have the resources to effectively tackle high-rise fires, he says. More equipment, such as respirators and radios, are needed.
“We do not have equipment to intervene in skyscraper fires. We requested it from the national police a few months ago, but so far we have not yet received it.”
Furthermore, deputy fire service director Sok Vannra said more personnel are needed to tackle the fire menace.
“Right now we lack the firefighters. I think maybe we need 60 more,” said Vannra, who said that Phnom Penh currently staffs 112 firefighters who get paid between $100 and $200 a month, depending on seniority.
At the Phnom Penh International Airport fire station, a pair of fire engines rush to extinguish a fire during a training exercise. In accordance with international aviation safety standards, the privately operated airport fire service uses well-maintained equipment. Their training, which is largely imported from abroad, is top-notch, and the firefighters extinguish the simulated fire in minutes while medical teams evacuate the wounded.
Hurford says that the Cambodian firefighters try their hardest despite poor funding and equipment.
“A lot of the firefighters are very dedicated to their job. As much as they are under-resourced, they do very well with what they do have.”
Additional reporting: Khoun Leakhana