Builders cheating to get around fire regulations

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Builders cheating to get around fire regulations

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The pictures above show a 10-minute experiment led by Lee Seong-eun, a disaster protection engineering professor at Hoseo University. The photo on the left is of a room that was fireproof; the photo on the right is one that was not. Provided by Lee

When officers from the National Police Agency (NPA) randomly visited 25 newly constructed buildings nationwide and collected samples of wooden walls from each establishment earlier this year, 16 failed domestic fireproofing standards, including a hotel and a day care center.

But all 25 sites, the police said, had passed fire inspections.

When the probe was broadened to investigate the construction companies behind those troubled 16 buildings, which had certified in writing that the walls were flameproof, deeper troubles were discovered.

Out of 106 buildings those companies worked on, irregularities were found in 103 and in various forms. Some worked with fake business licenses and others submitted swapped samples of the walls to fire departments to pass inspections.

“Ideally speaking, every building material would be fireproof,” said Kim Yun-cheol, a professor at the Seoul National University Engineering Research Institute.

“But realistically, cost factors don’t allow that, which is why [so many facilities are built with] the minimum amount of fireproof materials.”

Domestic law stipulates that when establishments open to public use, including private cram schools, medical facilities, schools and theaters, are constructed with wooden materials, the materials must be fireproof.

The legal definition of fireproof is a construction material that when set on fire with a 6.5-centimeter-long (2.5-inch-long) torch, the flame is extinguished within 10 seconds, according to the Fire-Fighting Systems Act.

Fireproof construction materials not only delay or stop the spread of a fire through a building but also block emissions of poisonous gas. Often they are coated with a flame retardant.

But because many local buildings don’t follow the fire laws, over 60 percent of casualties in blazes are caused by asphyxiation from such toxic substances, according to data from the Ministry of Public Safety and Security.

“There’s no other way to prove whether a construction material is fireproof but to actually set it on fire,” said Yeo Sang-gyu, head of the Korean Fire Protection Association. Inspectors usually cut off a part of the completed building and burn it in their laboratories to verify whether it satisfies legal fire standards.

But that procedure, Yeo said, can be undermined if contractors or building owners submit fireproof wall samples to authorities that weren’t actually used in their construction.

A worker at a flame retardant company, who asked not to be named, says widespread evasion of the regulations starts even before construction of a building begins.

“Plans to make all the construction materials fireproof must be settled in the architectural design stage while working out the budget,” the worker said. “But most local building aren’t built that way. I’ve rarely seen a finalized blueprint with such fire safety stipulations engineered in.”

Lee Seong-eun, a Hoseo University engineering professor specializing in disaster protection, says she hopes a new laser technology currently in the development stage will provide solutions.

“The laser device will put an end to the controversial procedure in confirming whether a building is fireproof,” said Lee. Instead of relying on contractors to submit wall samples to inspectors, which can be faked, authorities will pay a visit to the new building themselves and check whether it complies with fire safety restrictions.

BY LEE SANG-HWA [selee@joongang.co.kr]




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