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LCQ4: Fire safety problem of sub-divided units

Following is a question by the Hon Patrick Lau Sau-shing and a reply by the Secretary for Development, Mrs Carrie Lam, in the Legislative Council today (July 13):

Question:

The tragedy in which a No. 3 alarm fire broke out in a tenement building at 111 Ma Tau Wai Road in To Kwa Wan resulting in the death of four persons and an unborn child and 19 injured, has aroused public concern again about the fire safety problem of flat units divided into separate units (commonly known as "sub-divided units").  Some members of the Subcommittee on Building Safety and Related Issues of this Council pointed out that as sub-divided units could meet the housing needs of certain people, they should not be totally banned, and that in order to safeguard the lives and properties of the public, the fire safety of sub-divided units had to be further enhanced.  In this connection, will the Government inform this Council:

(a) given that the fire service equipment in private residential units is not regulated by law at present, whether the authorities will consider introducing legislation to regulate the fire service equipment in sub-divided units converted from private residential units, so as to ensure that sub-divided units for letting or sale are subject to corresponding regulation as in the case of other small-sized rooms for letting which are regulated by law; if they will not, of the reasons for that;

(b) as items of works commonly found in subdivided units are gradually being included in the Minor Works Control System (MWCS) by the authorities, whether the authorities will expeditiously consider incorporating fire service equipment including smoke detectors, automatic sprinkler system and fire alarm system, etc. in MWCS to expedite the enhancement of fire safety in sub-divided units, thereby safeguarding the lives and safety of sub-divided unit tenants and their neighbours; if they will not, of the reasons for that; and

(c) whether, apart from the Building Safety Loan Scheme and Building Maintenance Grant Scheme for Elderly Owners, the authorities will consider expanding other relevant subsidy schemes to provide loans or subsidies to owners of private residential units, including sub-divided units, in Hong Kong to encourage them to take the initiative to improve the fire service equipment in their units; and whether the authorities will consider strengthening the support provided by the Urban Renewal Authority under the Integrated Building Maintenance Assistance Scheme by enhancing its role in public education, thereby increasing the awareness among the owners and tenants of sub-divided units and the general public of fire safety in private residential units, including sub-divided units (e.g. making use of 3D building design models to instil in them correct knowledge about building and fire safety); if they will not, of the reasons for that?

Reply:

Acting Madam President,

Sub-division of flat units, commonly known as "sub-divided units", has recently become an issue of serious concern among Members and the public.  I replied to three oral and urgent questions in this Council about "sub-divided units" on 1 June and 22 June respectively.  I have explained in my replies that "sub-divided units" are a very complicated problem, involving issues such as fire safety, building safety, housing demand, building management as well as owners' knowledge of and attention over building and fire safety. 

From the perspective of building safety, the Buildings Department (BD) will step up inspection and control of "sub-divided units", and enhance the safety level of works concerned through the inclusion of more works associated with "sub-divided units" in the minor works control system (MWCS).  It will also enhance its efforts of educating owners and tenants in understanding the potential hidden risks to building safety arising from "sub-divided units".

From the perspective of fire safety, the Fire Services Department (FSD) has also strengthened its inspection of and enforcement against old buildings.  Fire safety facilities and related construction of composite commercial/residential and domestic buildings built in or before 1987 are governed by the Fire Safety (Buildings) Ordinance (Cap 572).  The FSD and BD have been gradually inspecting target buildings in Hong Kong under a programmed approach.  During inspections, the Departments will take follow-up actions if potential fire hazards caused by obstructions to fire escapes or structural problems are identified, or if there are problems associated with fire service installations and equipment.

To lower fire risks in old buildings in a more effective and comprehensive manner, the FSD introduced a multi-pronged approach in late 2008 for selected old buildings with higher potential fire risks in densely populated areas, such as To Kwa Wan, Yau Tsim Mong and Wan Chai, etc., with a view to lowering fire risks through inspection, enforcement and publicity.  The approach includes arranging the Special Enforcement Unit to step up inspections of old buildings and take enforcement actions, and follow-up regular inspections conducted by fire stations in the districts concerned.  The FSD invites district personalities to promote fire safety in these old buildings.  There are also 1 100 Building Fire Safety Envoys who conduct inspections of their buildings concerned from time to time to ensure that there would be no reappearance of irregularities.

The focus of Prof. Hon. Patrick Lau's question today is to seek a better understanding on how the Administration will help building owners to enhance fire safety of "sub-divided units", in particular fire service installations and equipment.  The Secretary for Security who attends the meeting together with me may answer Members' further questions on this aspect later.

My reply to the three-part question is as follows:

(a) As pointed out by Prof. Hon. Patrick Lau, currently there is no legislation regulating fire service equipment within private domestic units.  As a result, there are no such requirements for "sub-divided units", which are also private domestic units.  The Security Bureau has indicated that given the lower fire load and fire risks of domestic buildings and domestic units, the code of practice issued by the FSD only requires the provision of essential fire service installations and equipment (such as fire hydrant and hose reel systems) and adequate unobstructed escape routes in common areas of these buildings.  If we legislate to mandate the provision of large-scale fire service installations (such as automatic sprinkler systems and fire-resistant structures) inside domestic units, there will be immense difficulties for old domestic buildings in terms of engineering design.  The public will also be concerned about the construction fees and the maintenance of such installations.  Such issue should therefore be considered and handled carefully.

(b) As regards building structural works involved in "sub-divided units", as I have explained to Members earlier on, we intend to tackle the problem by imposing control at source.  We will therefore incorporate works commonly found in "sub-divided units" into the MWCS, requiring owners to carry out works through legal means by engaging registered contractors so as to enhance the safety level of such works.  Internal drainage works, commonly found in "sub-divided units", are already regulated by the MWCS.  We have proposed to further include other works commonly found in "sub-divided units" under the regulation of the MWCS.  Apart from the addition of floor screeding and erection of partition walls which have been frequently mentioned before, "formation of openings to a fire escape staircase or its protected lobby" is also one of the items proposed to be incorporated into the MWCS.  The regulation of such types of works will help prevent the sub-division works from affecting fire escapes.  The BD is now consulting the industry on the relevant technical details and will endeavour to submit the amendment regulation to the Legislative Council for scrutiny in the first quarter of 2012.

Currently, owners who plan to install fire service installations or equipment must follow the Fire Service (Installations and Equipment) Regulations (Cap 95B), which stipulate that only registered fire service installations contractors are allowed to install fire service installations or equipment.  Registered contractors must comply with the requirements set out by the FSD when carrying out such works.  The Regulations also require owners of fire service installations or equipment to hire registered contractors to carry out detailed inspections on a yearly basis and to keep such installations or equipment in efficient working order at all times.

(c) We appreciate the need of providing appropriate assistance to owners in the enhancement of fire and building safety.  In this connection, the Government, the Hong Kong Housing Society (HKHS) and the Urban Renewal Authority (URA) have been providing a number of financial assistance schemes to owners in need.  As pointed out in the question, under the Comprehensive Building Safety Improvement Loan Scheme, Building Maintenance Grant Scheme for Elderly Owners and Integrated Building Maintenance Assistance Scheme, works relating to fire service facilities (including those carried out in common areas and interiors of buildings) are with the scope for which subsidies or loans can be granted.  Such items include smoke detectors, automatic sprinkler systems and fire alarm systems as mentioned in the question.

Apart from financial assistance, the HKHS and URA will also provide owners with technical support in different aspects, such as providing advice and reminders to owners or owners' corporations on works relating to fire safety.

Apart from the above, under the new Urban Renewal Strategy published in February this year, the URA will promote rehabilitation of buildings in need of repair as one of its core businesses, including the setting up of Urban Renewal Resources Centres (URRCs) in urban areas.  We will explore with the URA different methods to enhance building safety awareness in URRCs with, say, the use of 3D models as mentioned in the question to introduce relevant information.  To ensure that the URRCs will meet the future needs of owners (including the promotion of correct building and fire safety knowledge to the public), the URA will continue to actively consider ideas put forward by all parties.

Regarding public education on fire safety, the work which the FSD has been actively pursuing out includes:

(i) making good use of district networks to enhance awareness of fire safety.  At present, all 18 districts have established District Fire Safety Committees to promote and disseminate fire safety awareness;

(ii) promoting the importance of fire safety by distributing leaflets, pamphlets and posters to the public, owners of target buildings and people of different races;

(iii) arranging the re-broadcast of an announcement of public interests on ways of evacuation through television and radio shortly in order to enhance the ability to escape of members of the public in case of fire; and

(iv) utilising the double-decker Fire Safety Education Bus which has been put into operation early this year to carry out publicity work, particularly in old built-up areas, by introducing a simulated fire scene for the members of the public to learn how to make appropriate judgments on whether they should escape and how to escape.

Thank you, Acting Madam President.


Ends/Wednesday, July 13, 2011
Issued at HKT 17:05

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