On Monday, a fire at the Key Club in Phnom Penh killed five women. It was the club’s second fire in two years, and the latest in a series of blazes around the capital. Paul Hurford is the managing director of Fire Safe, an international consulting firm that offers clients training in fire safety. The Australian national spoke to Post Weekend about the reasons behind the Kingdom’s lacklustre fire safety record, and what needs to change
Authorities have deemed that the fire at the nightclub on Monday was caused by faulty wiring. Is that a common cause of fires in Cambodia?
Electrical fires are very common here for the plain reason that there are no electrical standards.
There are no electricity standards for the installations and also no requirements for electricians to be qualified to do electrical engineering.
That’s a major problem in itself. The effect of that is that you have undersized cabling – it’s quite common here.
They’ll use one cable to feed five air conditioners, but they’ll need a bigger cable and the cable will get overloaded and hot.
Just the fact that overloading cables create heat has the potential to make fires, particularly if they’re not insulated.
If you have a karaoke bar with cushions on the wall and behind them cables running through, you have a significant fire risk. Poor installation is also a problem – it’s just poor quality workmanship. To a certain degree, substandard fittings and lights and that sort of thing are used.
Is part of the problem that fire regulation codes are being ignored?
The problem is not that they’re being ignored, it’s that they don’t exist. The time and expertise to develop them is probably the biggest problem.
It’s a big effort. Everyone’s focus in the last 12 months has been on fire safety, but it’s something that can’t be rushed.
It needs to be tailored and designed for the climate and culture of Cambodia. It’s not as simple as grabbing Singaporean fire codes and using them here.
The way that people go about their life is very different here. The way that people cook their meals, the way that people live in a dense living environment, 12 to 15 people in an apartment that would probably house two or three people in the West.
Fire safety has always been a big issue here. Unfortunately, statistics are proving that it’s worse than ever.
To date, the official figure is 22 deaths. Last year was 24 for the entire year. And the year before was even lower. It’s growing significantly every year.
How do you rate the fire response forces here?
The fire services are very much under-trained. They lack resources and also lack the enforcement systems to be able to do anything about it.
They’re trying very hard. The fire services have improved dramatically over the last 10 years but they still have a long way to go.
Our message to private business and residents is that there is a necessity to take a responsibility for fire safety in your home and business – to make the difference yourself.
How much responsibility falls on business owners?
The problem is understanding what can be enforced and what can’t.
Not having the regulations that state that you must have so many exits per occupant or you must have so many fire extinguishers.
An owner might not have much fire equipment, but there’s no regulation that states how much fire equipment he has to have. It’s a problem with compliance because you don’t have stuff to comply with.
Interview has been edited for length and clarity.