How safe is your house? Despite stricter laws governing fire safety, incidents in Oman have risen by 7 per cent. Team Y investigates why lives are still at risk and what you can do to protect yourself and your family.
Tragedy can strike anyone and at any moment in time.
Photographs of 10 members of a family are hanging on a wall; all victims of what turned out to be the greatest tragedy the Sultanate witnessed in 2018. A family of 12 ripped apart to just two members in a mere 30 minutes.
The cause of all this: the greatest house fire ever recorded in Oman.
Struck down by fumes caused by faulty wiring, the tragedy took the lives of those aged between one and 49 – thereby shaking up the tight-knit community that comprises the small hamlet of Khor al-Hamam, in the otherwise tranquil region of Saham.
News spread quickly and the emotions of residents filled social media spaces for days afterwards.
The tragedy soon took on the title, ‘The Disaster of Saham’, and more importantly, opened a floodgate of questions – primarily those involving fire and fire safety in the country.
And they were valid questions indeed, considering that Oman witnessed nearly 14 fire incidents every day in 2017 and a total of 4,748 cases over the course of that year.
Injuries and deaths correspond to those numbers with the latter touching around the 30s mark every year – all in a country that otherwise boasts of its well-connected fire and safety rescue and iron-clad regulations – and thus led to the public coming together to question where Oman is going wrong with respect to fire and safety.
It’s an answer our source – an engineer at the Royal Oman Police – who wishes to remain unnamed, attempts to clarify in an interview with Y.
He says: “Oman falls into a part of land that receives more average sunlight than most other parts of the world. So, the average temperatures are also quite high.
“This means that a lot of electrical equipment, wiring, motors, and even general elements in a home can be under a lot of stress from the heat. And that makes them (insulation on wires) prone to damage over time due to dryness and cracking, and eventually (in the case of electronics) they can catch fire.
“Electrical fires arising from faulty wires are one of the largest causes of fires in residential homes, followed by gas-related incidents, barbecues, and smoking cigarettes.
“The former, however, is one of the toughest to control as you cannot use water to put them out. Instead, you’d have to use a ‘Class C’ extinguisher to cut off the oxygen supply to the fire and eventually stop it.
“But, if you are to learn more about this, you will learn that Oman has very strict rules and regulations laid down by PACDA concerning the importing of housing equipment, wires, and even cars. Nothing that fails to meet the basic standards of load and quality will be passed by the municipality when they conduct their inspections.
“Where this breaks down is when a lot of companies import poor quality wires that are branded with trusted names – or in other words, fakes – and the contractors install them at homes for reducing the overall cost of a house.
“So, in the eyes of the law and the home owner, they look compliant. But, the municipality will generally conduct a thorough analysis of the equipment and then pass the certificate to begin electricity flow to the home.
“PACDA classifies residential complexes as a ‘light hazard’ for fires, so there will be a difference in the classification of equipment that must be used for construction.
“This difference will affect everything from the fire spread control – horizontal, vertical, and external spread; to emergency exits; and the most vital part of it all, firefighting and warning equipment.”
The official’s explanation stands true in the Saham tragedy, as even though the fire was pegged to faulty wiring, the ROP reported that the home lacked a fire alarm system – a required attachment in modern homes.
Moreover, the home in question was also known to be old, thus keeping it spared from modern fire safety equipment.
In a separate incident in Oman in November 2017, eight people were killed when a fire engulfed their home in Barka, of similar causes.
These led to widespread campaigns run by the government and the media on installing battery-operated alarm smoke detectors in 2018 – but the initial hype has since died.
The efforts may come across as a tad late and valiant in the eyes of those left distraught by the tragedy – but it’s one that may change the course of the future of fire safety of residential units in the nation.
It’s also one that several experts are now emphasising as vital, given the current statistics of reported fires in the Sultanate.
The National Centre for Statistics and Information (NCSI) recorded 4,748 fire incidents in 2017 as opposed to 4,157 from 2016 – a jump of nearly 7 per cent; a significant number even after the implementation of stricter laws and checks.
To understand the graveness of the situation at hand, we take a trip to Old Muscat – one of the most populated areas in the Sultanate – in search of any fire and safety violations.
Much to our surprise, however, our guide Mujeebul Khan*, a contractor based in Muscat, shows us how underequipped and dangerous homes older than 15 years can be if not fitted with modern fire safety solutions.
Over the course of our trip to 12 homes, we stumble upon a staggering 41 violations of the fire code – much of which stems from the lack of smoke alarms and fire blankets, expired fire extinguishers, unmarked ‘EXIT’ boards or blocked doors in corridors, a safe housing for LPG gas cylinders, and in some cases, homes where smokers left cigarette buds on the floor or close to the gas stove.
When we ask Mujeebul about why this is the case in these homes, he answers: “If you carefully read the newspapers, you will see that at no point does the PACDA or ROP say that this equipment (smoke alarms, fire extinguishers, etc.) is mandatory.
“In fact, I read one story where the word ‘urged’ was used.
“Would you jump into your car, drive to a fire safety equipment shop or the PACDA and spend hundreds of Riyals on fire extinguishers and smoke alarms?” he asks.
“Honestly, we place them in all our newly-constructed homes, but like we have seen now, there are several homes that don’t have them.”
Mujeebul makes a strong point. A 2kgs canister of powder fire extinguisher will set you back RO22, while a more versatile 5kgs Carbon Dioxide canister can cost anywhere between RO95 and 120.
These safety systems are mandatory in commercial buildings and industries – and PACDA, the official body for certifications – issues clearances.
“Taking up commercial contracts is one of the toughest prospects here in Oman but the laws and regulations surrounding fire safety is top-class.
“There’s a building code for every type of property and the PACDA will personally go inch-by-inch to check if the materials comply with the control sheets and if all the work is done as per the industry-mandated standards.
Despite all the steps taken, though, even newer properties – both residential and commercial – have had their fair share of reported incidents that shed light on the every-growing worry of fire safety.
For instance, the nation began 2019 with fire spreading over a building in Seeb (thankfully, with no injuries), and subsequently this month, an eatery in the bustling mall in Al Mouj went up in flames, which left one injured.
To understand more about fire safety, we meet Mundhir al Zadjali, the founder and fire and safety inspector of Aftech Oman – a newly-established contracting company, which also specialises in safety planning.
He says: “Fire safety is a very important factor in Oman, and our current numbers are really low and doesn’t reflect on the excellent work that is being done by the PACDA, Muscat Municipality, and the ROP.
“A reason for this is because there’s no initiative from people to set up fire safety systems and fire retardant systems in residential properties. So, when I’m approached by clients, I am told to reduce the costs as much as possible.
“This means that we cannot install the top safety equipment – and that can lead to a lot of problems. Moreover, a lot of the people also don’t service or replace fire extinguishers.
“If you look at a canister, you can see a dial showing the pressure inside. It must be within the green for a safe operation – but a lot of people don’t know about that or choose to ignore it.
“As trained professionals who have been operating for nearly two years, we only receive about 20 to 30 per cent customers from residential properties requesting a service of a fire extinguisher.
“This mindset of choosing money over safety must change. It just must. There are people who live around you and you’re also putting them at risk.
“People like us; we’ve undergone years of training to know that an extinguisher and a fire retardant suit must be placed within 30 feet of cooking equipment, and how the seals around the connectors must be fastened properly, among several other protocols.
“So, seeing this attitude towards fire safety is upsetting. The government has set the basic regulations straight but now it’s up to us to take this forward and implement them from our side.”
Mundhir’s then elaborates on lapses in fire safety in Oman, extending it to everything from careless campers to scammers selling improper cars.
While these may seem like lesser concerns when lined up against the fact that 26 per cent of all fires are reported in residential properties and 51 per cent are linked to commercial properties; factors such as negligence, miscalculation and even general ignorance to the topic amount to the remaining 23 per cent of all fires reported in the country.
In fact, the numbers only become prominent when you learn that an overwhelming 2,411 vehicles caught fire in the past three years, according to a report published by the PACDA.
Speaking to Y about the subject is veteran safety expert and post-incident analyst of a leading Asian automotive manufacturer, Simon Jones. He explains: “The numbers that are highlighted by PACDA are worrying. In truth, they’re very worrying.
“The numbers amount up to nearly two cars catching fire every day for the last three years. And if we are to sort those out by category, I can say that a lot of these cars have caught fire after a crash.
“That’s the norm – when we hear about a car fire, we immediately turn our attention to collisions. Cars do combust in specific scenarios where petrol is spilled or if there’s damage to certain sections of the body that expose the flammable liquids.
“But then there’s the more worrying prospect: imports coming in from the USA. What people don’t understand is that these cars aren’t designed to operate in hot GCC conditions.
“Cars here have specifically-designed glues, variable engine compression ratios, and many more aspects that keep them from damaging. But, American cars don’t need that extra reinforcement.
“So, what you’re essentially doing is taking a chance and hoping that your new import won’t combust owing to the searing summer heat.
“I wouldn’t go as far as scaring the people from buying American-market cars – but one needs to be aware of the risks involved,” he adds, before emphasising on how even normal cars require periodic maintenance to avoid the chance of a fire and a proper rest between long drives to help keep the engine temperature to an optimum level.
Also among Mundhir’s list of leading causes of injuries from fires are camp and leisure-related fires that arise from improper discarding of firewood or close proximity to fabric tents.
No statistics of fires in wadis or campsites have been reported in the past five years but Mundhir is adamant and believes that several cases go unnoticed.
He says: “When people talk about camp fires, their mind immediately goes to fires in labour camps – which are also a great concern. But, because a lot of people travel for excursions outside the country, there’s a great chance for fires in these remote areas.
“Thankfully, Oman’s barren habitat doesn’t consist of enough arid or dry plants to begin a calamity but it can still affect localised spots. During my outings, I’ve come across several areas that are left charred after a fire.
“This is most likely from campers who probably left the firewood burning close to their tents or plants. This can quickly spread if you’re not careful, and worse still, it can take your life.
“What was intended to become a leisure trip would turn into a nightmarish experience. You can avoid all this by simply setting up fire a metre away from your tent and even farther if there’s wind taking fumes and flames to the tent.
During summer, it’s also best to keep firewood away from tents and flammables in storage compartments.
The ROP official also confirms the lack of reporting of camping-related fires, and tells: “This must be one of the most underreported cases of fires. People simply abandon their tents and run if needed.
“Thankfully, no one has been known to pass away from fumes or fire in campsites yet, but there’s always a likelihood of trouble in places such as those that don’t have regulations.
“It isn’t even necessary to carry extinguishers in a camp – and that must change. People must carry fire retardants with them always. And if you find yourself struggling to put a fire out, always resort to the fire extinguisher in your car.”
He then goes on to tell us how much of the minor fires in Oman are caused due to negligence.
“Times are changing and we must adapt to them. PACDA and ROP, along with the municipality are considering some great changes to the regulations and we’ll need to evaluate the importance of setting mandates on having firefighting equipment and other safety kits in the house for immediate response.
But he then adds: “Fire safety is not just the concern of the ROP or the fire departments. It should be your concern. You will be the first respondent to such a scenario and it’s how you respond to it that can mean the difference between life and death.
“And if Allah is giving you an opportunity to fix something before it happens, I would suggest you take it up and implement it for yourself and those around you.
“I believe in the saying, ‘Prevention is better than cure’, and if that message can save the life of one soul in Oman, I would consider it a job well done. For all other assistance, we’re available at ‘9999’.
“Life is a one-time gift from above. Don’t let it slip away from you.”
Get a home fire extinguisher
They’re a must-have item, and a great way to either stop a fire before it gets out of hand or control it while you escape. But before you face a potential fire, read the directions. Because more important than just having a fire extinguisher is actually knowing how and when to use it! Most extinguishers in your average hardware store are rated Type A:B:C, which means they’re ok to use on just about any kind of fire. But read the directions on your extinguisher, know which type it is, and know how to use it.
Know how to put out different types of house fires
Small electrical fires – Never use water! Switch off the power to whatever started the fire, and smother it with a clean, non-flammable blanket. You can also use a Type C fire extinguisher.
Small cooking fires – If a grease fire starts in your kitchen, never try to put it out with water! Calmly turn the heat off to the pan and try to cover it with a metal lid. If you can’t do that, smother the flames with baking soda (a lot of baking soda!) or use a Type A:B:C fire extinguisher.
Small gas fires – If your home uses gas, you should know how to put out a small gas fire. Immediately shut off the gas supply. You can smother the fire with a thick rug, put it out with cool water, or use a Type B extinguisher. (Again, Type A:B:C extinguishers will work too.)
If there is a fire, leave your home, stay outside and call 9-9-9-9 for help.
If you are caught in a fire:
• Remember to stop, drop and roll if your clothes are on fire.
• Crawl low under smoke. This makes it easier to breathe.
• If you are able, close the doors of your home to contain the fire.
• Do not use elevators to escape, use stairs instead.
• Test door handles and feel the door with the back of your hand before entering another room. If they are hot there may be a fire on the other side.
• Signal to people outside for help if you are not able to leave your home. If you are in a high-rise building, hang a sheet out your window or from your balcony to show emergency personnel where you are.