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Following is a written reply by the Secretary for Security, Mr Lai Tung-kwok, to a question by the Dr Hon Priscilla Leung in the Legislative Council today (July 10):
Under the Fire Safety (Building) Ordinance (Cap. 572), the authorities may issue Fire Safety Directions (Directions) to require the owners or occupiers of composite and domestic buildings to improve, by a specified date, the fire service installations (including the installation of automatic sprinkler systems) and fire safety construction (including the provision of fire resisting construction) for the parts of their properties intended for non-domestic purposes. However, it is learnt that quite a number of old Chinese tenement buildings cannot comply with the requirements of the Directions due to technical problems, e.g. the building structure is unable to bear the loading of a water tank required for an automatic sprinkler system. Moreover, according to the guidelines on fire resisting construction of buildings issued by the authorities, no opening may be made on any fire resisting walls and floors in buildings or on the fire resisting walls and doors of protected lobby (such as the opening for an exhaust fan). Nevertheless, quite a number of residents have relayed that poor ventilation in buildings of old designs renders it necessary for them to install exhaust fans and make additional openings so that the corridors will have better ventilation. Should these openings be sealed, these residents are worried that this will cause thick smoke trapped within confined corridors in the event of fire, which will pose threats to residents’ lives. In this connection, will the Government inform this Council:
(a) of the number of Directions, issued in the past three years by the authorities after inspection, which required the installation of automatic sprinkler systems (and the percentage of such number in the total number of Directions issued) and, among these Directions, the respective numbers of those which had not been complied with by the deadline, those which had been complied with, and those for which extension had been granted;
(b) given that the authorities have indicated that they are happy to discuss with the owners or authorised persons of the owners’ corporations and qualified contractors in relation to the aforesaid problem of building overloading for water tanks involved in the installation of sprinkler systems in old buildings, so as to come up with alternatives, of the details of the alternatives commonly adopted at present, and whether the owners or occupiers can apply for extension of the deadline for compliance when they are still in discussion with the authorities; of the number of cases in which alternatives had been adopted to replace the original instructions in the Directions in the past three years; and
(c) regarding the concerns expressed by the aforesaid residents on fire resisting construction in buildings, whether the authorities will review the relevant guidelines or draw up more viable alternatives; if they will, of the details; if not, the reasons for that?
The Fire Safety (Buildings) Ordinance (Cap 572) (the Ordinance) came into operation on July 1, 2007. The Ordinance stipulates that the fire safety of composite and domestic buildings constructed on or before March 1, 1987 should be enhanced to better meet the requirements of today. There are notable differences between the fire safety requirements at the time of the construction of those buildings and the standards nowadays, e.g. the commercial portions of composite buildings were not required by law at that time to install automatic sprinkler systems. Enhancements are therefore necessary.
The Fire Services Department (FSD) and the Buildings Department (BD) have been conducting joint inspections on target buildings in Hong Kong by two phases. The first phase covers about 9,000 old composite buildings and the second phase covers about 3,000 old domestic buildings. The two departments will issue Fire Safety Directions (FS Directions) to owners and/or occupiers on the fire service installation and fire safety construction requirements in those buildings, with a view to enhancing their basic fire protection measures. BD is the enforcement department on fire safety measures in terms of the planning, design and construction of buildings, while fire service installations and equipment (e.g. automatic sprinkler systems and emergency lighting, etc) fall under the purview of FSD.
The Administration’s reply to the three parts of the question is as follows:
(a) In the past three years (i.e. from June 2010 to May 2013), FSD has issued over 46,000 FS Directions to the owners and/or occupiers of 1,981 target composite buildings after conducting inspections in accordance with the Ordinance. Among them, 700 buildings (i.e. 35% of the target buildings issued with FS Directions during that period) were required to install automatic sprinkler systems in their commercial portions (Note 1).
Among the 1,981 buildings issued with FS Directions, 1,392 buildings have been granted extension of deadline for compliance of the FS Directions or their extension applications are being processed by FSD (among them, 482 buildings are required to install automatic sprinkler systems). The FS Directions of the remaining 589 buildings have not reached their deadlines yet (among them, 218 buildings are required to install automatic sprinkler systems).
(b) The Administration is aware that individual buildings might not be able to fully comply with the requirements set out in the FS Directions due to structural or spatial constraints. In this connection, the relevant departments would, without compromising basic fire safety, adopt a flexible and pragmatic approach in handling individual cases. FSD normally gives an owner/occupier one year to comply with FS Directions. If more time is needed to prepare for (including formulation of alternative proposals to comply with the requirements set out in the FS Directions) and carry out the improvement works, they could file an application to extend the compliance period. The department would consider the application basing on the circumstances of individual cases.
If there are genuine structural or spatial constraints in installing automatic sprinkler systems and sprinkler water tanks in the commercial portions of individual composite buildings, FSD would reasonably relax some of the requirements or accept alternatives such as giving consideration to allow the installation of improvised automatic sprinkler systems (i.e. the water supplies for the systems may come from direct connection from town mains (Note 2) or the shared use of the water tank of the hose reel system) in the light of the circumstances of individual cases and the information submitted by authorised persons. According to the experience of FSD, most of the structural and technical problems concerning the installation of water tanks for automatic sprinkler systems can be resolved by the installation of improvised automatic sprinkler systems.
In the past three years, FSD has approved a total of 69 target buildings to install improvised automatic sprinkler systems in their commercial portions as alternatives.
(c) Facilities of fire resisting construction in old buildings (i.e. compartment walls separating escape stairways and flat units, protected lobbies, and fire resisting walls and doors on common corridors, etc.) fall under the ambit of BD. According to BD, fire resisting constructions can prevent the spread of heat, smoke and fire into escape stairways during a fire in order to ensure the safety of residents in escape. Therefore, no openings or holes may be made on such fire resisting constructions in general.
Notwithstanding the above, according to BD’s code of practice for fire resisting constructions in buildings, openings may be made on those facilities if special measures are taken. For instance, if owners intend to make openings on a compartment wall or floor to make room for air-conditioning ducts, ventilation ducts, electrical trunking, conduits, pipes and electrical cables, etc, they are required to install fire dampers in compliance with relevant specifications or other suitable forms of fire stop to protect those openings in accordance with the BD’s code of practice. That is to maintain the fire resistance of such fire resisting constructions. As for openings for installing exhaust fans on fire resisting constructions, those are considered not acceptable because the openings would lead to the spread of heat, smoke and fire into the fire escape route during a fire and cause danger to the residents when they escape.
Note 1: According to the requirements, if the total floor area of the commercial portions of a target composite building exceeds 230 square metres, the relevant portions are required to install automatic sprinkler systems. The domestic portions of composite buildings are not required to provide such installation.
Note 2: The alternative of obtaining water directly from town mains for automatic sprinkler systems is applicable to only those composite buildings with commercial portions not exceeding four storeys (counting from ground floor level).