Struggling for safetyNowhere in this country is safe. On Saturday morning, a fire erupted in a first-floor parking lot, putting the entire residents of a building and two nearby apartment blocks in Uijeongbu, Gyeonggi, in danger. The fire quickly spread through the outer wall, suffocating the buildings with toxic smoke. It killed four, injured 124 and left more than 200 homeless as of press time Sunday.
The exterior of the building was made of concrete lightly sprayed over by polyurethane foam, which can turn into toxic inflammable material when it catches fire. Despite the hazards, the building had no sprinklers or fire safety equipment. The buildings were almost connected with a space of just one meter (about three feet) between them. The fire easily spread to the next building, but the road was too narrow for a fire engine to get through. The blaze also proliferated through the rear wall, but the back of the building was inaccessible because it was too close to a railway. The fire was another typical man-made urban disaster and the result of poor safety awareness and scrutiny. The buildings were closely constructed so that the entire area came under collective danger. Yet the construction was legitimate. A building of 10 stories or under does not have to be subject to fire facilities like fire extinguishers and sprinklers. There is also no rule that enforces the use of flame-proof materials for the building’s exterior. A residential building in a commercial area only needs to be built 50 centimeters (1.6 feet) apart from the next.
The problem is that there are many buildings like these in cities across the nation. There are about 100,000 households in such buildings in Seoul alone. Mayor Park Won-soon has promised to create 200,000 more in the capital to offer cheaper residences for low-income people. The government eased many real estate regulations due to the rental shortage crisis in 2009, leading to mushrooming residential buildings in urban neighborhoods. Various safety regulations were also eased to expedite construction. Safety has been the buzzword since the tragic sinking of the Sewol ferry in April last year. Still, major accidents continue because basic safety regulations are being neglected.
Safety cannot be ensured simply through regulations. Excessive regulations can kill the market and economy. What’s important is business conscience. A home builder should not be ruled by money but should consider the safety of the people. They must do business by placing social responsibility and citizenship before profit. Safety is the duty of the people, businesses and government.
JoongAng Ilbo, Jan. 12, Page 34