Author(s): Angelo Verzoni. Published on November 1, 2017.

Burned Behind Bars



THE BARRED WINDOWS made the building look more like a prison than a school. And when a fire gutted the top floor of the three-story building on September 14, those bars prevented 23 people from getting out alive, 21 of them boys who attended the Islamic school in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.

“The building was surrounded by metal grills that could not be opened from the inside,” a fire official told Reuters. “The students, after realizing [there was] fire and heavy smoke, tried to escape through the windows, but because of the grills, they could not.”

“I saw children kicking on the grill, but they couldn’t get out,” a witness told CNN. “My friends and I rushed over and tried to reach them, but we couldn’t get in.”

Military man stands guard outside school in Kuala Lumpur that experiences a deadly fire.  The top floor of the school has broken windows and is in disarray.

In September, a fire at a religious school in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, killed at least 24 people. Many were unable to escape due to barred windows and blocked exits. Photograph: Getty Images

Various media reports have said one of the school’s two exits was blocked by construction equipment, leaving panicked students bottlenecked at the main door while others struggled to break through the barred windows. Only 13 boys who managed to pry open a window survived. Two 16-year-old boys have each been charged with 23 counts of murder for allegedly setting the fire.

The blaze recalls a fire in a youth shelter in Guatemala in March that killed 40 teenage girls who were locked inside a room as punishment. Both incidents underscore the importance of NFPA 1, Fire Code, and NFPA 101®, Life Safety Code®, which ensure paths of egress remain open in the event of a fire. With few exceptions, codes stress safety over security, and aim to prevent incidents like these from happening. “Don’t be misled into thinking that security takes precedence over life safety,” Greg Harrington, NFPA staff liaison for NFPA 101, said after the Guatemala fire.

Malaysian authorities say they are now working to inspect and upgrade religious schools across the country. Several have already been found to contain faulty wiring and no fire extinguishers, according to CNN.


NFPA renews MOU with Chinese fire safety organization

In September, NFPA renewed its memorandum of understanding (MOU) with the China Fire Protection Association (CFPA), continuing a collaboration that dates back more than 20 years.

NFPA President Jim Pauley signed the renewal before giving a presentation at CFPA’s 17th China Fire: International Fire Protection Equipment Technology Conference and Exposition. The MOU guarantees a robust information-sharing program between NFPA and CFPA. “The information exchange that we have with various authorities throughout China and the world allows us to build knowledge for our respective roles,” Pauley told an audience of government officials, firefighters, and others gathered for the conference. “Now, more than ever, it is critical that we stay current in our jobs. We can’t simply stick to what we know. We have to prioritize fire protection, fire suppression, code awareness, and safety enforcement strategies. Otherwise, everyday fire issues and new technology will outpace us.”

NFPA’s involvement in fire and life safety in China runs deep. About 30 NFPA codes and standards as well as NFPA public education materials have been translated into Mandarin.


Wildfire season is the worst ever for Portugal

Over three dozen people were killed in wildfires that tore through Portugal and Spain in mid-October. Most of the fatalities were in Portugal, which is still recovering from a massive wildfire that killed more than 60 people over the summer.

This has been the country’s most devastating wildfire season ever, according to António Patrão, a forest engineer and fire prevention specialist. From January through October, over 100 people had died, hundreds more had been injured, and over 1.2 million acres had burned in wildfires throughout the country. The acreage burned in Portugal alone accounts for about half of all the acres that have burned in wildfires in all of Europe this year.

“We are now living in a moment of uncertainty when wildfires easily become urban and industrial ones,” Patrão told NFPA in a recent blog post. “Wildfires in Portugal are now clearly being assumed as a social problem. They have human causes, they provoke human losses, and solutions are in human hands.”

To read more about what Patrão had to say about the fires, visit the “Fire Break” blog on NFPA Xchange.

United Kingdom

After Grenfell fire, sprinkler push picks up steam

It was the deadliest fire in modern British history. At least 80 people died when a massive blaze engulfed London’s Grenfell Tower, a 24-story apartment building, in June. The building was found to have combustible exterior cladding and insulation, only one stairwell, and no fire sprinklers. In the wake of the fire, fire safety advocates and legislators are leading a push for more widespread adoption of fire sprinklers in the United Kingdom.

“If they’d had a sprinkler system [in Grenfell], the fire would have been deluged before it got to the cladding,” Paul Atkins, who was previously contracted to work on Grenfell Tower, told BBC News. “People would’ve had plenty of time to leave the building.”

Efforts by sprinkler advocates like Atkins seem to be paying off. Thirty out of 33 sprinkler companies surveyed by the BBC say they’ve seen a surge in customer inquiries. Additionally, at least two local government associations in London have pledged to install sprinkler systems in their housing buildings reaching 10 stories or higher.

NFPA has been one of the strongest proponents for the adoption of home fire sprinklers. For more information, visit the Fire Sprinkler Initiative website.

ANGELO VERZONI is staff writer for NFPA Journal. Top Photograph: Getty Images