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Club fire a grim lesson in safety

A fire department official examines the burned-out interior of Siem Reap’s Hip Hop Club.
A fire department official examines the burned-out interior of Siem Reap’s Hip Hop Club. Thik Kaliyann

Club fire a grim lesson in safety

Poor installation of electrical wiring and lack of exits remain widespread problems

A blaze that gutted the popular Hip Hop Club on Tuesday night, killing five people and injuring two, was the fourth big blaze in as many years in Siem Reap. But many businesses in the city continue to operate without adequate safety measures due to a lack of national standards and an unwillingness to enforce their own, say industry experts.

“We always tell people what they need to do to prevent fires. But they just do not care,” said Meas Sang, director of the fire department in Siem Reap.

There are currently no regulations governing how enterprises in Cambodia manage fire risks: the main purpose of one law passed last year was to prevent fire companies from seeking bribes – leaving industries to police themselves.

The big international hotels are subject to internal corporate governance and conduct their own safety audits, according to the resident manager of Belmond La Résidence d’Angkor.

But smaller businesses can be harder to reach, even though they may welcome hundreds of customers every day.

Police have said that Tuesday’s fire was likely caused by faulty electrical wiring. Early suggestions that there was only one door have been refuted by the club’s owner, Lee Kong Vong, who said there were four.

The poor installation of wiring is one of the most widespread problems, according to British electrical engineer Alan Cordory. The former head of environment and safety for the British Royal Air Force was prompted to start Sparkies, a social enterprise that trains professional electricians in Siem Reap, after seeing so many violations of basic procedures in electrical wiring.

“One of the biggest problems is that an owner might put in the right system, but then they need to hire an electrician for something and then they come in and change everything because they don’t understand the nature of what they’re doing,” said Cordory.

When an electrical wire is badly joined, it can heat up and ignite what is behind it, he explained. Or else, when the wire is too small to carry the load required, the wire can heat up and burn out or overload the circuit breakers.

The CEO of Forte Insurance, Youk Chanroeuth Rith, said that, along with inadequate exits, poor electrical wiring is one of the most common problems risk assessors encounter. “Too often the wiring is inadequate for the load that is required of it,” he said.

Making a small building safer through the installation of smoke alarms, fire extinguishers and emergency lighting can cost as little as $200, according to Khim Hav, director of Power Cambodia. “It can be difficult to explain to the owner,” he said. “They don’t want to spend money and don’t think it’s a problem.”

“We need to educate people,” added Lim Nam, managing director of the Angkor Night Market, whose business was affected after the fire that destroyed the market in 2012, killing eight people. “It can be difficult. Big damage and loss is a part of how people grow up, so it is hard to make them understand that they need to or can do something about it.”

AziSafe, which deals in fire safety products and training, is a founding member of the Fire Protection Association of Cambodia, a Phnom Penh-based association of about 20 companies that are working to create a code of conduct.

Paul Hurford, a former firefighter and the managing director of AziSafe, believes that Siem Reap businesses need to get together to create something similar.

Until standards are created, however, it is up to businesses to make their own.   

Lim said he has installed a $20,000 fire safety system at the Angkor Night Market, which is notable for its thatch roofing. “It’s good for the country if we take care,” he said.

Multiple attempts to reach Lee Kong Vong, the owner of Hip Hop Club, were unsuccessful.

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