Rising fire cases justify updating of the Fire Act

By The Editorial Board 22 September 2023, 10:00AM

It has been just over a week since the fire crippled and forced the closure of one of Apia’s leading medicine suppliers Maria Pharmacy on Vaea Street. Last Wednesday morning, the blaze burnt Maria’s Mall and impacted neighbouring businesses including Talofa Airways, Maria's Pharmacy Healthcare, and the local television station TV3.

Early this week the Samoa Observer quoted the Samoa Fire and Emergency Services Authority (F.E.S.A.) Commissioner. In an article, the F.E.S.A. Commissioner, Tanuvasa Petone Mauga said that based on their investigation an electrical fault was the cause of the fire at Maria’s Mall.

On Wednesday night this week – seven days after the fire at Maria’s Mall – another fire in the centre of Apia also threatened adjacent properties worth millions of tala. It started at around 8 pm and gradually grew into a massive blaze within the Sunrise business compound on Togafu'afu'a Road, turning Apia’s night sky orange, according to a Samoa Observer report in yesterday’s edition. Strong winds in the evening made it tough for F.E.S.A. officers to contain the blaze with its ferociousness forcing residents in nearby properties to evacuate for fear of it spreading.

Businesses and properties within the vicinity of the Sunrise business compound include the Apia Harvest Centre Church, the new Chan Mow Supermarket, the Urban Village Tattoo shop, Samoa Realty and Chan Mow Wholesale in the front. No doubt, all these buildings are multi-million tala investments.

Looking at last Wednesday’s fire at Maria’s Mall, the property itself is also smack bang in the middle of Apia’s commercial area, with multiple local firms either directly opposite it or next to it on Vaea Street. Again, an out-of-control blaze would have endangered all these multi-million tala investments, to the detriment of the business owners. 

While the fire on Wednesday evening didn’t go out of control, thanks to the quick intervention of the F.E.S.A. officers and what eyewitnesses say was a change in the wind direction, Samoa’s business community came close yet again to losing the assets of some of their key members.

The local authorities, no doubt, have now begun their own investigations into Wednesday night’s blaze in order to determine how the fire started. 

However, the fact that the inferno comes just a week after last Wednesday’s fire should compel officials within the relevant government agencies to ask questions on how it can either be avoided or the risks minimised through direct policy interventions or even the necessary legislation.

Perhaps, one of the biggest questions that should be asked by the local authorities, is whether Samoa’s current laws on fire safety are up to date and take into consideration the times we are currently living in amid the planet’s worsening climate crisis which is increasing global temperatures. 

Currently, the work of the F.E.S.A. in Samoa comes under the framework of the Fire and Emergency Service Act 2007 which gives the authority the mandate of “prevention, suppression and control of fires and other emergencies and establish the Samoa Fire and Emergency Service Authority.”

We note key provisions in the 2007 legislation relating to fire hydrants, building passages and exits, inspection powers, fire insurance and maintenance of fire equipment and detection in buildings. However, it has been 16 years since that law was drafted and passed by the Legislative Assembly. Are there any plans by the current administration to review the current law with a view to bringing it up to speed in line with the latest trends and developments in fire safety regulations?

The fact that the Planning and Urban Management Agency (PUMA) – which comes under the Ministry of Works, Transport, and Infrastructure (MWTI) and is separate from the F.E.S.A. – but also shares some responsibilities pertaining to fire safety, we believe, is an anomaly in the law that should be reviewed. 

For example, currently, owners of two-storey residential properties who want a fire alarm in their homes have to go to PUMA to apply for a permit to get it installed. But why should the property owner go to PUMA when he or she can go directly to FESA and get the approval with that information entered into their database which they can access in real-time during emergencies?

The certification of electricians to undertake wiring of public and private properties during the construction phase should also be tightened by the PUMA to ensure the workmanship is of a high standard so the risks of fires being triggered by electrical faults are minimised. 

There are also questions about the availability of fire hydrants in Apia during the critical times of a fire emergency and whether F.E.S.A. has real-time 24-hour access to the Samoa Water Authority (SWA) database to locate them in order for its firefighting men and women to respond effectively.

As the country continues to develop, we can expect more public and private buildings to be erected in the coming years, and with it, the rising demand on F.E.S.A. to respond to fire emergencies. But there is no guarantee of an optimum performance from its brave men and women when their work is governed by a law that is close to two decades old.

By The Editorial Board 22 September 2023, 10:00AM
Samoa Observer

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