LC Urgent Q5: Improvement options for hawker stalls

     Following is a question by Hon Starry Lee 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):


     A fire resulting in the heaviest casualties since the reunification of Hong Kong broke out at the hawker stalls at Fa Yuen Street in Mong Kok in the early hours of last Wednesday, in which the fire rapidly spread and smoke engulfed two adjacent tenement buildings, resulting in nine people killed and 34 injured.  Apart from the concern about the safety management of hawker stalls, quite a number of residents also complained that when they escaped from the fire, the staircases were piled up with too many miscellaneous items, thus blocking the fire escapes, resulting in heavy casualties.  In this connection, will the Government inform this Council:

(a) whether it will consider conducting inspections of all old buildings with potential safety hazards throughout the territory immediately; and with fire safety as a priority consideration, requesting the Food and Environmental Hygiene Department to provide immediate assistance in clearing the fire escapes once they are found seriously blocked by miscellaneous items; and

(b) whether it will request hawker stalls at Fa Yuen Street to immediately adopt the temporary arrangement of "no overnight storage of goods at stalls" until a proposal acceptable to various parties is arrived at through discussion?



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

(a) Old composite and residential buildings are regulated under the Fire Safety (Buildings) Ordinance (Cap. 572) (the Ordinance).  The Ordinance came into operation in July 2007.  It aims at upgrading the fire safety standards of about 12 000 composite and residential buildings completed before 1987 to present day fire safety standards.  Of the about 9 200 old composite buildings, the Fire Services Department (FSD) and the Buildings Department (BD) have so far conducted joint inspections for about 4 600 (i.e. 50%) of them.  Fire safety directions have been issued to owners or users of about 2 600 buildings, requiring them to upgrade the fire safety standards of their buildings.  If obstructions to means of escape or potential fire hazards caused by structural problems are identified during inspections, or if problems are found in the fire service installations and equipment, the department(s) concerned would take enforcement action.  If there are articles causing obstructions to means of escape which would lead to imminent and serious fire hazards, FSD could make arrangement to remove those articles.

     In addition, FSD has been arranging the Special Enforcement Unit to inspect old buildings with higher fire risks to ensure their fire safety.  FSD launched a special inspection operation in districts with a high density of old buildings last November.  More than 200 buildings were inspected during the exercise and 47 prosecutions were taken against irregularities such as obstructions to means of escape.  Cases involving structural problems were referred to BD.  Leaflets on fire safety have also been distributed to the residents.

     Owners and residents have to ensure that the fire escape passageways of their buildings are free of obstruction and they are responsible for clearing any such obstruction.

(b) 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.

     In order to enhance public safety, we will actively consider various improvement options, including the arrangements of "no overnight storage of commodities at stalls" or "setting up stalls only during trading hours" and "removing the commodities without dismantling the stalls at night".  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.

Ends/Wednesday, December 7, 2011
Issued at HKT 20:23