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LC Urgent Q4: Fire safety measures for hawker stalls

     Following is a question by Hon Alan Leong under Rule 24(4) of the Rules of Procedure and a reply by the Secretary for Food and Health, Dr York Chow, in the Legislative Council today (December 7):


     After a Number 3 alarm fire broke out at Fa Yuen Street in Mong Kok in 2010, the Government ordered the stall hawkers to switch to the use of fire resisting materials, and removed 10 stalls away from the exits of nearby buildings to reserve space for fire escapes.  In less than a year, another more serious Number 4 alarm fire broke out at Fa Yuen Street in the early hours on November 30, 2011, resulting in nine people killed and 34 injured.  This incident has aroused public concern about insufficient fire control over hawker stalls, which fails to deal with the potential hazards posed by them.  Apart from Fa Yuen Street in Mong Kok, similar types of hawker stalls are still found in quite a number of old districts in Hong Kong (such as Fuk Wing Street and Ap Liu Street in Sham Shui Po, Temple Street and Po Ning Street in Jordan, etc.), and there are old buildings on both sides of the stalls, thus posing potential fire risks, all the more giving rise to concern whether the fire precautions for hawker stalls in Hong Kong are comprehensive.  In this connection, will the Government inform this Council:

(a) whether, in the regulatory control over streets with open-air hawker stalls of the Fire Services Department (FSD) and the Electrical and Mechanical Services Department, there are specific requirements on the safety separation distance between hawker stalls, distance between hawker stalls and residential buildings, as well as fire protection equipment; if there are, of the details; if not, the reasons for that; of the number of inspections conducted by FSD at Fa Yuen Street since the Number 3 alarm fire which occurred there last year and the details concerned;

(b) given that the Government has indicated that it will adopt a zero-tolerance stance towards non-compliant hawker stalls and actively study the feasibility of requiring such stalls be closed and cleared each night and be set up only during the day for business, the introduction of a demerit point system and the revocation of licences, etc., of the measures to be taken by the authorities to strike a balance between reducing fire risks and facilitating the operation of hawker stalls; whether consideration will be given to providing subsidies to stall hawkers so as to reduce their operating costs; if so, of the details; if not, the reasons for that; and

(c) given that the authorities have provided loans for repairs of the buildings affected by the fire last year and helped the buildings concerned to form owners' corporations, of the progress of the relevant arrangements; whether the authorities will consider providing subsidies to those owner's corporations and flat owners affected by this fire for the purpose of repairing all the damaged public areas and private residential areas of their buildings, if they will, of the details; if not, the reasons for that?



     My reply to the various parts of the question is as follows:

(a) Since the fire at the hawker stalls in Fa Yuen Street in December last year, the Food and Environmental Hygiene Department (FEHD), in conjunction with the Fire Services Department (FSD), the Electrical and Mechanical Services Department and the hawker associations concerned, has implemented fire safety improvement measures, which include ensuring sufficient space in the carriageway for fire appliances and firemen; allowing sufficient space between hawker stalls to facilitate evacuation of residents of buildings in the vicinity; providing proper separation space between un-linked hawker stalls so as to prevent the spread of fire; erecting stalls with fire-resisting materials; and requiring hawker stalls to obtain independent electricity supply from legal sources, etc.  FSD has formulated contingency plans for some 20 areas in the territory where old residential and composite buildings are found near closely packed hawker stalls, in order to enhance the efficiency in fire-fighting and rescue operations in case of a fire.  To ensure emergency vehicles can pass through smoothly, FSD has also been conducting road tests from time to time in these areas.

     According to the observations of FSD at the scene, highly combustible canvas or plastic materials were found on top of some of the hawker stalls in Fa Yuen Street and the separation space between un-linked hawker stalls was inadequate, thus threatening fire safety.  However, the actual causes of the fire and the circumstances leading to the spread of fire can only be confirmed when the investigation is completed.

     Since the No. 4 alarm fire broke out in Fa Yuen Street, FSD has joined forces with FEHD in conducting inspections in areas where residential buildings are found near closely packed hawker stalls and assisted FEHD in taking enforcement action.  In light of this recent fire incident in Fa Yuen Street, FEHD, FSD and other departments concerned are now reviewing the fire safety measures for hawker stalls and considering ways to further enhance their fire safety.

(b) In the wake of the fire at Fa Yuen Street on November 30 this year, FEHD has immediately strengthened enforcement regarding non-compliances in the hawker bazaar at Fa Yuen Street and all hawker bazaars in Hong Kong.  If the area used or the size of canopy is found to have exceeded the requirements imposed on the stall, or if street obstruction by commodities or overnight storage of commodities beyond the stall area is detected, FEHD will take enforcement actions.  By December 4, FEHD has issued 170 summons against non-compliances at Fa Yuen Street.

     Drawing on the experience of this fire at Fa Yuen Street and the one last year, we consider that it is necessary to introduce new measures to improve the environment of hawker bazaars, so as to further reduce the fire risks.  In this connection, the inter-departmental working group chaired by the Chief Secretary for Administration is actively considering different options.  Public safety, particularly the safety of life and properties of people who live in the vicinity of hawker bazaars, is our paramount consideration when examining these options.  We consider that it is the duty of stall operators to operate in accordance with the licensing conditions.  However, according to past experience in stall management, reliance on the self-discipline of traders alone is not sufficient.  We need to step up enforcement with immediate effect in order to prevent the recurrence of incidents similar to this fire.  Naturally, the long-term operating environment of stall operators should also be taken into account.

     To enhance public safety, we will actively consider various improvement options, including introducing the arrangements of "setting up stalls only during trading hours" or "removing the commodities without dismantling the stalls at night", a mechanism for cancellation of hawker licences and realigning or relocating the hawker stalls, etc.  Since each option has its own pros and cons, we must conduct careful studies to assess the risks involved and discuss with the relevant stakeholders, including the stall operators and the District Councils.  We understand that the public expect an early implementation of the improvement measures.  FEHD and the departments concerned are now conducting the studies at full speed and will strive to strike a balance between reducing fire hazards and taking the stall operation into consideration.

     Regarding the question of providing subsidies to stall operators raised by Hon Alan Leung, I would like to point out that all stall operators are obligated to comply with licensing conditions.  They should not expect subsidies from public money.

(c) Since the No. 3 alarm fire broke out at Fa Yuen Street last year, the Yau Tsim Mong District Office (YTMDO) has enhanced its active follow-up action on the building management problems in the district.  Through various channels including distributing leaflets and arranging roadshows, YTMDO together with the Property Management Advisory Centre of the Hong Kong Housing Society (HKHS) has frequently visited the buildings affected by the fire, so as to introduce the "Building Management and Maintenance Scheme" and the "Building Maintenance Grant Scheme for Elderly Owners" of HKHS to assist the affected residents in repairing their buildings and restoring to normal life as soon as possible.  According to information from HKHS and the Buildings Department (BD), among the six buildings eligible for financial support, four have been included under the Operation Building Bright (the Operation).  Two of these buildings are arranging for the works, while the other two have commenced the works.  As for the two buildings that have not participated in the Operation, the owners of one of the buildings have stated that they do not intend to join any of the financial support schemes as the costs will be covered by an insurance company.  The other building is currently receiving the support from HKHS under the Building Maintenance Incentive Scheme.  Some of the buildings have also been subsidised to carry out a number of fire safety improvement works.

     As for those buildings without Owners' Corporations (OCs), YTMDO, in collaboration with HKHS, has conducted home visits and briefing sessions to encourage owners to form OCs to strengthen building management, as well as to introduce the various financial assistance schemes to assist owners in meeting various needs.  Since December 2010, YTMDO has assisted two private buildings at Fa Yuen Street in holding owners' meetings and forming OCs.  Furthermore, YTMDO has also strengthened their visits to the private buildings along the affected sections of Fa Yuen Street, in order to understand the building conditions and enhance the residents' awareness of building management.

     Similar to last year's arrangement, HKHS has plans to proactively contact the affected OCs and visit the affected owners and occupants upon the re-opening of the affected buildings, with a view to providing information of and offering appropriate assistance under the various assistance schemes under the Government, HKHS as well as the Urban Renewal Authority (URA).  In particular, for those eligible owners or OCs of private buildings affected by the fire this time, if they encounter financial difficulties in building repair and maintenance, they may apply for the "Integrated Building Maintenance Assistance Scheme" (the Integrated Scheme) jointly administered by HKHS and URA.  The Integrated Scheme provides one-stop comprehensive support to owners, including Common Area Repair Works Subsidy, Common Area Repair Works Interest-free Loan, Home Renovation Interest-free Loan and Owners' Corporation Formation Subsidy.  These two organisations also provide technical assistance to applicants.  Furthermore, owners or OCs may apply for two Government-funded programmes via the Integrated Scheme, which include the Building Maintenance Grant Scheme for Elderly Owners administered by HKHS and the Building Safety Loan Scheme administered by BD.

Ends/Wednesday, December 7, 2011
Issued at HKT 20:53


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