For multi-storeyed building constructions : fire safety procedures vital | Sunday Observer

For multi-storeyed building constructions : fire safety procedures vital

Pic: Hiru TV
Pic: Hiru TV

The recent London inferno has stirred up the world to raise safety standards in high rises to ensure the protection of occupants. Following the London episode and the collapse of the multi-storey building in Colombo last month questions have been raised on how safe buildings are in Sri Lanka.

Construction and fire safety experts said that most of the newly built structures in Colombo are well equipped and are maintained in high safety standards.

However, this is not the case with older or traditional buildings in the city. Fire safety measures in most of them are not up to the mark according to fire safety experts.


Fire Service Department Chief Fire Officer P.N.R. Fernando said there are a large number of old buildings in the city which need upgrading of fire safety measures.

According to the Department, most of the archaic buildings are public sector structures which need to upgrade its safety standards.

“Standards in private buildings are better compared to public buildings which tend to be neglected. The older the building the higher the vulnerability,” Fernando said.

However, the Fire Service Department’s concern is the high rise structures which need more attention. Rescue operation on high rise building is a daunting task for fire fighters who risk their lives to save occupants.

The Department conducts inspections annually to ensure fire protection procedures are adhered properly in buildings. ‘If there are lapses we recommend measures to be taken to ensure the safety of occupants,” Fernando said.

The Training Unit of the Fire Service Department at Wellawatte conducts training programs for private and public sector institutions.

The Department receives around 300 calls a year from the city. It has received 155 calls up to May 31 this year.

The strength and the standard of equipment are key components for any mission. However, according to Fernando the number is not an obstacle for a fire rescue mission. Border limitations are what hinder operations. He said since the Department is restricted to the Colombo city it has to obtain permission from the CMC if it has to overstep limits.

‘We respond to calls within a 20 km radius while others have to be by the local authorities,” Fernando said.

With regard to how fast the fire fighters could reach the location Fernando said generally it takes around 15 minutes but it could be more during peak hours in the city.

‘We could reach a location within five minutes in the night,” he said.

What is required is high standard equipment to fight major fires. According to the Standard Operating Procedure, a fire in a multi-storey building requires more fire engines and water bowsers.


The Department currently has 300 fire fighters, 19 fire engines and eight bowsers.

“Most of our fire vehicles are old with some even over 15 years. A fire vehicle is used in Japan for only five years,” Fernando said.

He said the Department needs turn table ladders and aerial ladders to combat fire at a higher elevation.

Ignitions take place due to electrical short circuits, gas cylinder leakages and lightning. Fire spreads rapidly in less humid environments. Since the humidity level in Sri Lanka is high the pace is slow. The Fire Service Department was set up during the British era.

Condominium Management Authority (CMA) Chairman C.A. Wijeyeweera said the developer has to adhere to safety standards stipulated by the CMA to ensure the safety of occupants to obtain the other approvals such as the Certificate of Conformity (COC) from the local authority.

“The clearance letter from the CMA is prerequisite to secure approval to go ahead with the construction from the local authority,” Wijeyeweera said.

The fire clearance certificate and meeting standards of the Ceylon Electricity Board in installing electricity are vital prior to applying for the certificate from the CMA. Besides, all building plans have to be prepared and certified by a chartered architect. The structural designs including foundation details should be prepared and certified by a structural engineer registered with the Institute of Engineers.

In case of a condominium structure soil reports have to be obtained. The clearance from the Central Environmental Authority should be obtained with regard to treatment plants.

The developer should submit to the CMA a solid waste disposal and management proposal in terms of the conditions and instructions laid down by the local authority.

The developer should ensure that proper water proofing systems are applied to a roof terrace. The developer is expected to provide a guarantee for not less than 10 years for water proofing. The guarantee should be transferable to the management cooperative or the owners of condominium. All common service lines such as electrical, water, fire, sewerage and waste water lines should be laid through a separate service duct.

At the final stage prior to obtaining the CMA certificate, the developer should submit a proper management system and form the management cooperation with the prospective buyers and help the management cooperation to develop a proper management system for about a year. The required bi-laws of the management cooperation and in house rules have to be drawn up with the members of the management cooperation. The developer has to submit data on waste water systems, sewerage disposal systems, solid waste management systems, storm water systems, electrical systems, structural systems, a state of the art connectivity system for mobile phones and the standard telephones and fire systems with as-built drawings in consultation with relevant qualified persons.

Institute of Engineering Sri Lanka President Jayavilal Meegoda said the collapse of the Wellawatte building could have been averted if proper building construction procedure were followed.


“We need to set up standards and follow them. The safety measures and the fire controlling measures are important in a building. There are shortcomings in the gazatted regulations which hamper these measures. The planning stage needs to have the input of a chartered engineer. It is necessary to comply with the standards and have assessment and inspection at regular intervals,” he said.

”Every building should have a mechanism to check its structural strength. In this way structural head monitoring could be carried out and the buildings could be built to comply to the standards, Meegoda said.

Construction experts said good exterior cladding will help prevent the extent of damage caused by fire. Tests of the exterior cladding on public-housing tower in London has shown a 100 percent failure rate which raises fears that the deadly inferno could be replicated elsewhere.

The London’s 24-storey Grenfell Tower was transformed overnight from a home for hundreds into a charred ruin and a death trap for at least 79 people.