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LCQ4: Fire safety

     Following is a reply by the Secretary for Security, Mr Ambrose S K Lee, to a question by the Hon Cheung Kwok-che in the Legislative Council today (April 25):


     While Hong Kong is Asia's world city, quite a number of people are still living in sub-divisions of flat units (commonly known as "sub-divided units"), cubicle apartments and bedspace apartments (commonly known as "caged homes").  In addition to appalling living conditions, the layout of these residential units also hinders escape and rescue efforts in case of fire.  In this connection, will the Government inform this Council:

(a) of the respective and total numbers of households currently living in sub-divided units, cubicle apartments and caged homes according to the estimates made by the authorities; the respective and total numbers of inspections of sub-divided units, cubicle apartments and caged homes conducted by the Buildings Department and the Fire Services Department in the past six months, together with the respective and total numbers of households and flat units involved, and among them, the respective and total numbers of households and flat units involved in cases of contravention of the Buildings Ordinance and the Fire Services Ordinance;

(b) of the number of fires which involved the aforesaid three categories of residential units in each of the past four quarters; the measures currently put in place by the authorities to prevent and cope with fires in the aforesaid three categories of residential units; and

(c) of the respective and total numbers of residents of the aforesaid three categories of residential units who were allocated public rental housing (PRH) units in each of the past three years; how the authorities help those residents currently living in the aforesaid three categories of residential units move into PRH units as soon as possible; whether the authorities will increase public housing production to shorten the waiting time for such persons?



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

(a) According to the information provided by the Home Affairs Department (HAD), there are currently 15 licensed bedspace apartments (commonly known as "caged homes") in Hong Kong.  The Administration does not maintain information on the number of residential units and households inside the sub-division of flat units (commonly known as "sub-divided units") or cubicle apartments.

     Currently, there are legislative requirements on the provision of fire service installations and equipment in common areas of composite/domestic buildings and inside licensed premises.  However, there is no such requirement for the interior of domestic units.  Indeed, the fire hazards dealt with under the legislation also refer mainly to those found in the common areas of buildings (such as obstruction to the means of escape by floating objects).  Accordingly, for general domestic buildings, the Fire Services Department (FSD) only inspects their common areas to check if there is any violation of the Fire Services Ordinance (Cap. 95), for example whether there are obstructions to means of escape and whether the fire service installations in common areas function properly, etc.  The Department does not inspect the interior of general domestic units (including sub-divided units and cubicle apartments), and they will not know whether there are sub-divided units or cubicle apartments inside.  In the past six months, FSD has conducted 880 inspections on old composite buildings and issued 272 Fire Hazard Abatement Notices in respect of obstructions to means of escape.

     As regards the safety problems of the sub-divided flat units (including the seal-off of means of escape by alteration of building partition walls) inside a building, the Buildings Department (BD) has commenced a large scale operation in April 2011.  In the past six months, BD has inspected 573 sub-divided units and issued 189 statutory orders and 329 advisory letters against sub-divided flat units which contravened the Buildings Ordinance (Cap. 123) and require the owners to rectify irregularities concerned.

     HAD is responsible for the licensing control of bedspace apartments, under which the licensing requirements include the provision of fire services installations inside the premises.  In the past six months, HAD has conducted 57 inspections and issued one warning and took one prosecution action against suspected unlicensed operation of bedspace apartment.

(b) In 2011, the number of fires involving buildings of residential use was about 2,700.  FSD does not maintain statistics on fires involving sub-divided units, cubicle apartments or bedspace apartments respectively.

     Most of the sub-divided units, cubicle apartments and bedspace apartments are found in old composite/domestic buildings.  To improve the fire safety standard of old buildings, the Fire Safety (Buildings) Ordinance (Cap. 572) came into effect in 2007.  The purpose of the Ordinance is to provide composite/domestic buildings constructed on or before March 1987 with fire protection which better meets the needs of today's society.  FSD and BD have been inspecting target buildings in Hong Kong under a programmed approach to enhance their fire safety standard and fire safety construction measures as required by the Ordinance.  As at March 2012, FSD and BD have conducted joint inspections on 4,986 target buildings and issued some 93,700 Fire Safety Directions.  If obstructions to means of escape are identified during inspections on these buildings, FSD will take enforcement action.  If suspected illegal structures or structural problems are identified, BD will take follow up actions.

     As pointed out in part (a), to tackle the building safety and fire safety problems in sub-divided units, BD has commenced a large scale operation in April 2011 to inspect sub-divided units of 150 buildings annually.  The target has been increased to 200 buildings from April this year.  In view of the higher potential fire risks posed by hawker pitches to neighbouring old buildings, BD has specifically increased the number of composite/residential buildings to be inspected in 2012 to 340, with a focus on inspecting sub-divided units inside old buildings in close proximity to hawker pitches.

     Regarding licensed bedspace apartments, HAD will ensure that the relevant premises comply with the fire safety requirements during its inspections.

     Furthermore, to improve fire safety in old buildings in a more effective and comprehensive manner, FSD introduced a four-pronged approach in late 2008 to target at old buildings with higher potential fire risks in densely populated areas, such as To Kwa Wan, Yau Tsim Mong and Wan Chai.  The four prongs are publicity, enforcement, inspection and community partnership.  On publicity, FSD invites District Fire Safety Committees and Fire Safety Ambassadors to promote fire safety to old buildings.  On enforcement, FSD deploys the special enforcement unit to carry out inspections and take enforcement actions on old buildings in those districts.  On inspection, officers of the fire stations in the district concerned will conduct regular inspections after the potential fire hazards of a building have been eradicated.  On community partnership, FSD appoints "Building Fire Safety Envoys" to assist in organising fire drills and fire safety talks, etc.

     FSD is also committed to promoting fire safety public education.  Its efforts include:

(i) promoting the importance of fire safety by distributing leaflets, pamphlets and posters to the public and owners of target buildings, etc;

(ii) drawing public attention on fire safety and educating them on the correct ways of evacuation in case of fire through announcement of public interests on television, drama episodes and radio programmes; and

(iii) carrying out publicity by the Fire Safety Education Bus particularly in areas with a high density of old buildings, and educating members of the public on how to make appropriate judgment on whether they should seek to escape and how to escape through the simulation of a fire scene.

(c) According to information provided by the Transport and Housing Bureau, eligible low-income families or individuals with housing needs, including those who live in sub-divided flats, cubicle apartments and bedspace apartments, can apply for public rental housing (PRH) through the Waiting List (WL).  Those who have pressing housing needs on medical or social grounds may consider applying for Compassionate Rehousing.  The Housing Department (HD) would process these applications in conjunction with recommendations by the Social Welfare Department.  PRH applicants on the WL may also apply for early flat allocation through the Express Flat Allocation Scheme.

     As HD does not require PRH applicants to declare the type of accommodation they reside in at the time of application, it does not have analysis on the types of housing occupied by PRH applicants.

     On PRH production, according to the latest Public Housing Construction Programme of the Hong Kong Housing Authority (HA), the HA will build a total of 75,000 PRH flats in the five-year period from 2011-12, which means an annual average of 15,000 PRH flats.  However, the annual production of 15,000 new PRH units is not a fixed target.  The target of HA is to maintain the average waiting time for general WL applicants at around three years.  If necessary, the HA will adjust the level of PRH production and increase supply so as to maintain the above target.

Ends/Wednesday, April 25, 2012
Issued at HKT 15:35


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