It’s a frustrating fact that since fire safety is not a tangible entity, it can often be ignored until significant suffering has occurred and the effects are felt on a personal level. Politically, investment in future safeguarding is not as well received as more obvious and visible concerns such as healthcare and education. It’s like buying insurance for something that will probably never happen – hardly exciting or sexy enough to influence the popular vote.
I have sat at countless meetings with design team architects questioning the need for that additional staircase, smoke control or that sprinkler system. ‘It’s health and safety gone mad’ people shriek as they count the pennies.
But when these events do happen, they are often catastrophic - family members lost, properties, memories, artifacts destroyed. Only then do the questions start…
‘How could we have let this happen?’ the same people ask ‘Who is to blame?’.
Information is the only means of combating ignorance and the ‘We didn’t know’ excuses. Which I guess is why I first felt so passionate about the IFE database which Adam Course has birthed and championed:
A wonderful concept of sharing lessons learnt to drive training and impart knowledge to all who seek it. I had originally tasked myself with supporting the cause by gathering data on fires for ‘Phase III’ of the database (the international sections).
However, my eagerness has largely been thwarted by the lack of reporting throughout the regions I have visited so far. In those exceptions where incidents have been reported there has been a reluctance to release it into the public domain. I have learnt a lot about fires across the region but most have been recollections that do not always fully align with officially released media statements.
This is why it is refreshing to reach Lima, where I have met people more open to knowledge sharing and assessing lessons learnt. They have been eager to discuss the devastating yet pivotal events which have shaped regulation in the country.
Like most cities Lima is not considered a traveler’s top destination spot, but as a city girl I fed off its vibrancy, the bustling streets, good food and parks (surprisingly full of cats) and a lovely change from the Peru I had been used to so far. Lima was described to me as a donkey’s belly – grey and dry, a fitting description of the week I was there since I did not see the sun once!
But walking the coastline watching the surfers dance their dance across the breaks and dodging the loved up couples too engrossed in each other to look where they were going, I decided I liked it here.
I visited the British Embassy in Miraflores to meet Declan Tighe and Lieutenant Pastor Rivera who talked me through the structure surrounding Limean fire safety.
There are around 30 districts in Lima with Lieutenant Pastor’s district of Victoria having a fire station with 146 years of history and a strong link to the UK service. Since Lima is technically a desert it has major issues with water, and not just with the quantity available. When water is required to tackle a fire the fire department often needs to ask the water company to increase the pressure in the affected zone. To make matters worse, the infrastructure is poorly maintained and an estimated 40-60% of the water supply is lost through leaks.
In a fire service made up of mostly volunteers (bar specialists such as drivers) there are obvious similarities with other countries I have visited, most notably the passion and pride involved in being a fire fighter. However here there was a more intense approach to corruption than I had previously encountered elsewhere.
During my time in Peru, the whole of congress was dissolved in an attempt to curb a corruption pandemic. There seems to be an inherent fear of it occurring in any ‘spending’ department leading to rules which impact the way fire departments are run. There are strict rules on donations and rotations are required every 3 years to ensure the risk of corruption is minimised. This doesn’t just include the fire chief either – we’re talking entire crews!
This can mean that experienced crew, training and knowledge are lost once a rotation has occurred.
Through these unique hardships, It has been fascinating to investigate real life examples of significant fires, the lessons learnt from them and action taken particularly in regards to regulatory reform.
The examples given below were based on information drawn from the Peruvian Journal of Experimental Medicine and Public Health, Civil Defence reports and articles in the media.
The Mesa Redonda Shopping Centre Fire
The Mesa Redonda or ‘Round Table’ Shopping Centre fire was the stuff of nightmares. Located in Lima’s historic ‘old town’, the mall was crammed full of stall vendors and pre-new year shoppers. One particular item for sale was fireworks.
At 7:15 p.m. on December 29th, 2001, a vendor performed a fireworks demonstration setting off a chain of events which ultimately killed 277, injured 247, and caused millions of dollars (US) worth of damages. The safety risks were already known to authorities, due to overcrowding and insufficient measures to safely store the estimated 900 tonnes of pyrotechnics. However, concerns were not addressed and the perfect storm of negligence on the part of the authorities, merchants and buyers led to the inevitable tragedy.
440 volunteer firefighters and 40 units fought to contain the fire but were hampered by water shortages, risk of structural collapse, and shopkeepers locking doors to prevent looting.
The sale and production of fireworks was banned across the whole country.
The creation of Regional and Local Regulatory Centers for Emergencies and Disasters to improve responses to mass emergencies and disasters
Improved management and coordination between relief agencies and volunteers.
Introduction of preventative and mitigating strategies for, during and after reconstruction.
Establishing a culture of safety within the local communities from preschool ages up to adults and introducing legislation to support it.
The Utopia Disco Fire
On the 20th July 2002 a fire began in the Utopia nightclub located in the Jockey Plaza in Monterrico, part of the Surco district. This was just a few months after the fire at Mesa Redonda Shopping Centre.
The club was located on the first floor of the mall and had an official maximum capacity of 1000. On the night of the fire 1200 people were allowed in for a special zoo – themed night , featuring live big cats (a lion and tiger) as well as special performance artists.
The fire began at 3:15am, according to witnesses who were in the club, and started in the DJ booth before quickly spreading. Other media reports cited that it was caused by barmen performing fire tricks.
The fire was tackled by the fire brigade, the Municipality of Surco and the National Police of Peru and controlled after 2 hours (5.30 am).
29 people died and a further 54 people were injured. The big cats also perished.
A report conducted by the University of Engineering concluded that the cause of the disaster was exacerbated by :
- A general lack of safety awareness by the club staff,
- Flammable materials present throughout the club,
- A lack of fire fighting equipment including extinguishers, hose reels and sprinklers,
- A lack of an emergency plan,
- Exceeded occupancy numbers,
- A lack of fire wardens,
- A lack of efficient emergency lighting,
- A lack of adequate egress signage,
- No official club license.
The report further concluded that such venues should meet the following requirements in the future:
- Strict restrictions on capacities,
- New clubs to meet minimum earthquake requirements,
- Exit signage and extinguishers installed throughout,
- Lighting subject to periodic inspections,
- Egress widths not to be restricted, including by the placement of safety equipment,
- Evacuation plan to be provided,
- Personnel to be trained to support evacuations,
- Firearms prohibited along with other items that could cause harm to others,
- All phone directories to be updated with current emergency service numbers.
Larcomar cinema fire and the Nicolini building container fire
No official report was available so the overview of these stories was taken from media reports.
Next to the British Embassy in Miraflores sits the Larcomar Entertainment Complex where a fire broke out on the morning of November 16th 2016. Having worked on the design of a number of cinemas myself, I understand the complexities associated with this occupancy type, particularly relating to means of escape and smoke control. Media reports highlighted unconfirmed issues with sprinklers, locked egress doors and smoke extraction from basement levels. 4 members of staff were killed.
Just 7 months later on the 22nd June 2017 a fire broke out on the roof of the Nicolini building where a number of containers were stacked and used to house exploited labour. As the Guardian reported the incident led to a government investigation into modern day slavery and highlighted the issue of unregulated labour in Lima . This was because workers were locked in the containers and forced to work long hours. This imprisonment lead to the deaths of 4 people, one as young as 19.
The 2 fires were important in Lima history since they effectively led to an alteration in the way fire certificates were issued for buildings. Previously fire certificates would be issued just once for a building. These tragedies highlighted the need for annual inspections which have now been introduced.
The success of the implementation of these lessons learnt is in question since on November 2nd, 2007, a further fire happened in Mesa Redonda and another in April of this year so it is easy to cast doubts on progress.
As part of the original Mesa Redonda fire report I Google translated a section to English which I have left in its raw, imperfect form, as I feel it conveys the problem quite hauntingly. It is taken from a firefighter’s statement:
“…a place in ashes, smoking, burned remains, injured in hospitals, queues in the morgue, faces of grief, terror and indignation. And from that moment, the usual: ‘what horror, how could it happen, who was, I was not’. A few days like this, and back to normal. What remains of the Mesa Redonda environment which reopens its doors? Peru is bigger than its problems, only with more absurd deaths and oblivion”
Will there ever be a time when we are truly capable of learning from the mistakes of the past or are we consistently doomed to repeat them?