Blaze leads to questions about city’s fire alarms

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Blaze leads to questions about city’s fire alarms

The blaze sparked last weekend after a motorcycle caught fire in the above-ground parking lot of a 10-story apartment building in Uijeongbu, Gyeonggi, has turned out to be one of the deadliest disasters for the nation in 2015.

The blaze Saturday spread to two other apartment blocks, a four-story parking lot and two low-rise residential buildings, bringing the death toll to four and more than 100 injured as of press time on Tuesday.

And now authorities are questioning why the blaze, which took fire fighters about two and a half hours to extinguish, could not have been subdued any earlier. Some victims didn’t recall having heard the fire alarm that Saturday morning, a possible primary reason for evacuation efforts failing.

Police said they are currently looking into the matter.

According to the Uijeongbu Fire Department, each floor in the buildings had a fire alarm, though it is still looking into whether they all functioned properly that day.

But whether the alarms sounded or not shouldn’t be the core of the issue, said Baek Dong-hyun, head of the Korean Institute of Fire Science and Engineering.

After visiting several Uijeongbu apartment buildings on Monday to check the fire safety equipment with reporters from the JoongAng Ilbo, he concluded that residents there may not be any safer than those who lost their lives over the weekend.

While examining the apartment complexes, Baek found that most of the alarms except the ones in the stairwells located outside the homes were heat detectors, not smoke detectors.

“Seventy to 80 percent of those who die in a fire accident do so by suffocation, but with heat detectors, it’s impossible to prevent that,” he added.

“An apartment building fire usually breaks out inside a home, not in the staircases,” he added.

Heat detectors sound when temperatures surpass 70 degrees Celsius, though Baek argued that toxic gas reaches people must faster than a large blaze.

The JoongAng Ilbo also found that many other apartment complexes across Seoul and Uijeongbu used similar fire alarms as those inspected Monday, mostly to save on costs.

A heat-detecting fire alarm device usually costs around 1,000 won (91 cents), while smoke detectors go for 10,000 won. 

BY JEON ICK-JIN, CHO HYE-KYUNG AND LEE SUNG-EUN [selee@joongang.co.kr]


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