There is no escape from fire in tube house

September 14, 2023 | 07:12 pm PT
Nguyen Hoang Nam Businessman
I could not believe my eyes when I first read about the fire at the mini apartment building in Hanoi's Thanh Xuan District. So many lives were lost. Such a tragedy.

I am sure authorities will soon launch an investigation to find the cause of the fire.

These are the facts I have seen: 45 apartments with 150 people packed inside a 200 m2, 10-story building situated deep within an alley and with few openings.

As a veteran in the construction sector, I can guarantee that this building does not comply with fire safety standards and regulations.

When I told a South Korean friend, the CEO of a real estate firm, about the tragedy, he was taken aback.

"Fire safety requirements in Vietnam are even tougher than in South Korea," he said.

And that was why he was shocked to know about the Hanoi apartment fire.

Just last month he struggled with fire safety approval for an apartment project despite having abided by the design and everything else that had been approved.

When fire safety standards are high but fires still cause great loss of life and property, it means there is something wrong with their enforcement.

Fire safety standards are generally very stringent, especially for apartments. I and my colleagues often think about the huge costs involved in meeting these standards.

For instance, last week I saw three sprinklers within 20 m2 in a house measuring 50 m2: a complete waste of resources.

But tube houses and mini apartments do not have such stringent standards.

Based on my own observation, fires could break out in tube houses due to the following reasons.

Tube houses are often privately designed and built, and so their electrical systems can be cheap and prone to accidents.

The model of using the ground floor for vehicle parking and those above for living is also very risky since a fire in a vehicle will quickly block the exit and the smoke will rise up, asphyxiating occupants.

These buildings are often privately owned and so authorities are wary of ruffling feathers. I have lived in both apartment buildings and tube houses, and while I saw the apartment buildings being evaluated for fire safety standards every year, tube houses rarely were.

No matter how hard we try, we can never completely eliminate the risk of fires. So, when there is a fire, the goal is to try and minimize losses as much as possible, especially of human lives. But over 90% of tube houses do not have automatic fire alarm systems.

When a fire breaks out, people can only run to escape. But the problem with tube houses - and mini apartments - is that emergency staircases will be invaded by fumes and other exits like balconies and open spaces are often blocked to keep out burglars.

In other words, when a fire happens in such a location, there is no escape.

In 2008 I saw the movie "Slumdog Millionaire" and the dark side of urban development.

Hanoi today is slowly getting crowded, and if not carefully managed, high-rise buildings that do not satisfy basic living standards will eventually show up.

When that happens, whether someone survives a house fire or not will purely come down to luck.

*Nguyen Hoang Nam is the general director of social housing development firm G-Home.

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