MANY neighbourhoods are exposed to serious fire safety risks simply because there is no way help could reach them fast enough in an emergency.

Residents in many gated and guarded housing areas might not even realise that their boom gates, guardhouse and obstructed roads, which were put in place to burglar-proof their homes, had turned their neighbourhoods into a deathtrap.

The Fire and Rescue Department said among the burning issues it faced included having their access blocked, hindering firemen’s effort to respond to distress calls.

Its director-general, Datuk Wira Wan Mohd Nor Wan Ibrahim, told the New Sunday Times that this problem was prevalent in highly-populated low-cost housing areas.

His men, Wan Mohd Nor said, oftentimes found themselves failing to get close to the fires as roads leading to them would be blocked by vehicles at both sides.

This, he said, made it difficult, if not impossible, for fire engines with their huge water tankers and turntable ladders, to pass through.

Wan Mohd Nor zeroed in on the poor management and maintenance of these residences. Some low-cost apartments, he said, would usually have serious parking problems, which if left unresolved, could lead to disasters.

“The buildings are supposed to be maintained by the management, but many fail to do so because residents do not pay their maintenance fees.

“Parking is always a big issue in low-cost apartments, as each house will been allotted with only one parking lot. But the reality now is that most households would have at least two cars.

“As a result, residents will park their cars by the roadside and block the access routes. What if there is a fire?”

The NSU recently hitched a ride on a fire engine from the Sungai Pinang station in Klang.

The firefighters were responding to a distress call at 8pm, and we saw first-hand the challenges they had to face in reaching a low-cost 10-storey flat, where a unit was supposedly on fire.

It turned out to be a false alarm, but we could not imagine if it was not.

Not only did the firemen had to blare their horns throughout the 5km drive to get drivers to move aside, they also lost precious time in trying to get close to the scene.

The fire engine could not squeeze through the double-parked cars lining both sides of the road, and the firemen decided to get down from their fire engine with a 30-tonne water tanker, some 200m away from the supposed fire scene.

They were all set to roll out the reels and link each of the 30m hoses to begin saving lives and property, when their supervisor told them that it was a crank call.

They said at times like these, they were thankful that that was the case.

Sungai Pinang Fire and Rescue Department chief Zaidi Ahtan, who had been in the service for 26 years, said the challenges emergency response teams had been facing had become worrying.

“We have to be at the scene in under 10 minutes because the longer it takes, the harder it will be to control the fire.

“We waste a lot time because we have to manoeuvre around tight stretches in low-cost apartments and gated communities.

“It is also frustrating for us when we find gates in gated communities locked and the security guards refusing to let us enter unless we answer a host of questions,” he said, adding that there were times they had come close to breaking the locks to reach a reported fire.

Zaidi reminded residents’ associations that making entry routes inaccessible and hindering firefighters from carrying out their duties is an offence under the Fire Services Act 1988.

“Can you imagine people from 200 households trying to evacuate the housing area through that one exit?

“Section 2(F) of the Fire Services Act clearly provides for unobstructed access to firemen.

“Normally, when we see this happening, we will engage the residents’ association chairman and issue a fire-hazard abatement notice.

“Those who fail to comply with the notice can be charged under Section 10 of the Act, and liable to a fine not exceeding RM5,000 or imprisonment for a term not exceeding three years, or both.”

He added that the person could also be liable for a further fine of RM100 each day the offence continued after a conviction.  

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A fire engine from the Sungai Pinang fire station in Klang facing difficulties while responding to an emergency because cars were parked on both sides of the access road. Pix courtesy of Fire and Rescue Department