Fire exits in eleven- storeyed Labour Secretariat
Narahenpita blocked by small eateries:
Old city buildings a sky-high fire threat
Major risk areas evaluated
Colombo Fire Chief Rohitha Fernando said that the Fire Brigade is
conducting a program to identify areas which are major risks and were
evaluating them. Caretakers and managements of that building will be
warned about the risks and advised to take necessary preventive
measures. The areas will be closely monitored by officers and if they
had failed to adhere to the instructions they will be reported to the
Colombo Municipal Council.
According to the Municipality Ordinance it is an offence not to act
on behalf of the safety of the people or workers. If heads of
departments of these state buildings fail to adhere to the safety
notices issued by the Fire Brigade it will be taken up at national
level, Fernando said.
The story you are about to read is like from a Ripley's Believe it or
not episode. It is shocking to learn that some high-rise buildings in
the city of Colombo do not possess fire fighting equipment and have even
neglected fire safety rules that are compulsory for their own safety.
Some buildings do not even possess fire extinguishing cylinders or hoses
which is a must at every floor level.
In some buildings fire exits are blocked for various reasons. Fire
Brigade officials on a recent inspection tour saw that fire exits in the
eleven- storey Labour Secretariat building in Narahenpita were blocked
by small eateries.
The space reserved for safety exit points have been used to store
various unimportant material. Fire safety inspectors noticed in another
building the fire exit being blocked by a person running a small tea
kiosk . He was running the kiosk with the blessings of the management so
he did not bother about fire emergency or any other emergency! When this
was was brought to the notice of the management there was a hullaballoo
and it was immediately ordered to be cleared. But as usual when the fire
official went there after sometime it was back in operation.
The Twin Towers housing the World Trade Centre in the backdrop of the
Bank of Ceylon building is the iconic building identifying the heart of
the city of Colombo. Yet this monument that is the pride of the city
will soon be overtaken by new monster sky-high buildings which are still
in the making.
Mahaweli Mnistry along T.B. Jayah Mawatha
Ocean View Tower, Bambalapitiya
Before these skyrise buildings came into existence in the nineties,
there were only a few high-rise establishments that governed the Colombo
skyline. Beginning from the Labour Department building in Narahenpita,
the Mahaweli Ministry building in T B Jaya Mawatha, Public
Administration building in Torrington , the Sathosa building in Vauxhall
Street, the Telecom building in Fort and the Ocean View tower in
Bambalapitiya were the skyrises that adorned the city of Colombo.
|A blocked fire
Although all these buildings are built to last decades an alarming
issue has taken centrestage and opened the eyes of the authorities-the
safety of these old buildings in terms of a fire hazard. When fire
safety is considered as far as any modern building or an establishment
built with state- of- the art fire detection or prevention systems, the
structures of these old buildings are appalling. None of these buildings
possess a satisfactory fire detection system at present nor are any of
the fire safety rules being observed by the authorities.
The Colombo Fire Brigade has identified them as the most high risk
fire hazard establishments in Colombo city where managements have been
informed on several occasions to upgrade their fire detection systems or
to introduce new ones. State departments being housed in these buildings
have been requested on numerous occasions to follow fire safety rules
for the sake of the large number of employees moving in and out on a
The Labour Department building was built in the sixties to house
state offices which were earlier scattered in the Fort and Pettah areas.
A building which is over five decades is presently used for an important
purpose such as storing personal records of thousands of employees who
work in various offices. Not to mention that it has piles and piles of
old documents stacked in layers for many years. One can't imagine what
the repercussions would be if a small piece of paper caught fire!
The Mahaweli Ministry building is another chaotic area where the
entire fire safety staircase of the 12 storey building is blocked and
out of use for many years. The building is supported by an elevator and
a staircase at the front as well as with the fire escape staircase at
the rear. The fire exits leading to the rearside staircase on each level
is blocked by rubbish and broken office stuff.
The fire exits are practically for all intents and purposes unusable
for the past two decades since its establishment in the late seventies.
The officer in charge of the administration admitted that the
building lacks a proper fire safety system and that the fire escapes
were blocked. Due to the lack of space most of the office ware and other
irrelevant stuff has been stored in the space in the fire escapes. When
questioned whether the fire brigade had issued warnings about the
prevailing system the officer replied in the negative saying that nobody
had informed them about such a hazardous situation. However, the officer
admitted the fact that a thousand odd staff faced a grave situation in
an emergency by not using designated fire escape and the fire exit
The twelve-storied Sathosa building is also noted for its haphazard
fire safety system. It was not an easy task for fire fighters to douse
the fire that broke out on the seventh floor last July.
The Colombo Fire Brigade has to call in eight fire engines to control
the fire that showed signs of spreading all over the age- old building
that was built three decades ago. Ironically, admitting the fact that
the prevailing fire safety system was not satisfactory the
administration officer of the Public Administration Department told the
Sunday Observer that the Department annually calls for tenders from
private companies to refill fire extinguishing cylinders.
The officer spoke on terms of anonymity and said that they have
already been inspected and informed by the Colombo Fire Brigade to
upgrade the present fire safety system.
As a result the Department is planning to conduct a fire drill next
week and to hold training sessions for staff. However, it's the same
story once again the implementation of a proper fire detection system
with alarms and detectors will take awhile to be put in place as funds
were insufficient and there are unconfirmed reports that the Department
of Public Administration will be shifted to new premises in Battaramulla
in the near future.
According to the Divisional Fire Officer (Prevention) Wimal
Kularathne confirmed that although every person was well aware of a fire
risk, none of these buildings possess accepted fire safety systems.
The buildings lack modern state- of- the- art fire detection systems
that would enable thousands of lives to be saved in the event of an
[Sophisticated fire safety system]
A Wet Riser
In modern constructions there is a sophisticated fire safety system
known as a Wet Riser. A maze of pipelines running from the bottom to the
top most floor of a building distributing sub lines to each level with a
connected nozzle. The system contains high pressured water linked to a
powerful pump at the bottom that can be used at any level in an
emergency . Near the nozzle on each storey there are two fire hoses. For
an example if there was a fire on the fifth storey anybody can fixed the
fire hoses to the nozzle on that floor and douse the fire with the
pressurised water jet. This system helps to fight a fire more
efficiently and fast instead of dragging a hose from the ground floor. A
fire hose has a standard length of 15 meters which could be used only
for four floors if a floor's height was three meters. For a 20 storied
building it requires about five fire hoses to reach the top with
connecting each hose to the other. In a fire like that the hoses are
being dragged along the staircase to the required floor with an added
risk of any damage or burst in the line could result in a
flooding of water and destroy the property. In an emergency a fire
engine can even link to the fire service inlet of the Wet Riser system
in a building.
It is paramount that a sound fire safety system should be included
with heat and smoke detectors, sprinklers fixed on to the roof or the
ceiling not forgetting fire alarms.
Apart from those old buildings another area that had been identified
by the Fire Brigade are the congested supermarkets in Pettah. Fourteen
supermarkets in Bankshall Street, Second Cross Street, Third Cross
Street and Keyzer Street have been identified as posing a grave risk in
a fire emergency.
These five storey buildings have a space at back call "Rare Space" an
empty strip of land reserved between the building and the boundary to
generate ventilation. But it has been noticed that many unlawful vendors
had occupied this area and constructed illegal constructions for
This could lead to a major destruction in a fire emergency since
there is no ventilation from the rear and that a fire fighter could
enter only from the front.