By Mimi Alphonsus Fires this week at a tyre shop in Armour Street, Grandpass, and the NOLIMIT clothing establishment in Wellawatte have reignited serious concerns over fire safety. According to the Fire Service Department (FSD), both buildings had neglected fire safety measures, raising the issue of compliance across Colombo. But they also said FSD is [...]


Fire safety regulations go up in smoke as corruption, deception hold sway


By Mimi Alphonsus

Fires this week at a tyre shop in Armour Street, Grandpass, and the NOLIMIT clothing establishment in Wellawatte have reignited serious concerns over fire safety.

According to the Fire Service Department (FSD), both buildings had neglected fire safety measures, raising the issue of compliance across Colombo. But they also said FSD is legally required to inspect only around 20 percent of buildings in the capital–based on criteria set by the Colombo Municipal Council (CMC)–and that NOLIMIT Wellawatte was not one of them.

The Department is in talks with the CMC to draft bylaws that would enhance their authority to investigate and crack down on many more constructions that breach safety standards.

The corruption factor

Aftermath of fire at tyre shop in Armour Street, Grandpass: Safety measures were neglected says FSD

Safety regulations for new buildings are extensive on paper. Depending on its intended size, a building permit must be obtained from the Urban Development Authority (UDA) or local authority (such as Colombo Municipal Council) before a construction is put up. There must be clearance from the drainage division, FSD and other departments.

The FSD inspects the premises and, based on its risk profile, mandates the installation of extinguishers, hoses, ventilation systems, escape routes, separate staircases and other tools. A building permit is granted once all clearances are given and construction can begin. Afterwards, a certificate of conformity (CoC) must be obtained from the UDA or local authority–following another FSD inspection –before the building can be legally occupied.

However, The Sunday Times learnt that this process can get greatly delayed; and that it is susceptible to corruption, thereby endangering lives. “It can take years to get a building permit if you go about it the honest way,” said a spokesman for a leading private construction company, requesting anonymity. “So sometimes we start building even before obtaining all the clearances.”

“Adding two storeys more than the approved number of floors can bring in Rs. 200 million (in profit),” explained one engineer at an apartment construction company. “So giving Rs. 10 million in bribes to various departments is nothing compared to the profit.”

Customers are therefore at risk in buildings that don’t have the correct safety measures associated with their size.

Lalith Wijayarathne, the Acting Deputy Director General of Zone 2 at the UDA, said that a one-stop unit was set up especially to counter delays and corruption by processing clearances from all 17 relevant departments through the UDA directly.

“Getting bribes is a problem but those offering bribes are the bigger problem,” said Mr. Wijayarathne. “Through the online application of the one-stop unit, anyone from the Chairman to the President can monitor building applications and ensure they are done properly.”

Colombo Municipal Council Commissioner Bhadranie Jayawardhana said that they, too, are launching a digital application from April 1, 2024, to ease the building permit process and encourage new investments.

Deception, all the way

Meanwhile, private entities without the means for corruption resort to trickery to avoid strict and sometimes costly fire safety. “It is possible to temporarily rent out fire equipment for the inspection so you can avoid the expenses of buying,” said the head of a construction company. “The fire department is strict so this is how some people surpass the regulations.”

The Sunday Times confirmed that such a practice exists by calling 12 Colombo-based suppliers of fire extinguishing equipment. Three of them confirmed they give out equipment on rent while two acknowledged that some requests are made with the intention of deceiving fire safety inspectors.

FSD officials explained that they struggle to conduct inspections on time due to scarcity of staff. There are only ten employees for building inspections in all of Colombo. “There are thousands of buildings to inspect,” one said. “And for large hotels we have to send three people sometimes and spend two days to finish the job thoroughly.”

The FSD complained that they often are unable to inspect buildings as businesses or residents have already moved in without obtaining the CoC (which can only be granted after an FSD check).

Insurance companies also have a role to play. One insurance company said payouts are repudiated if it is found that fire safety standards had been violated.

Kolitha Sri Nissanka is the former Chief Fire Officer of the Sri Lanka Air Force and founder of a private company that helps clients adhere to international safety standards. He argued that buildings don’t bother to take precautions because they are certain of insurance payouts. “There is enough competition between insurance companies, so if one company doesn’t insure a building someone else will,” he said.

Grim statistics

Since the beginning of this year, the Colombo FSD has received 107 fire calls. This compared with 277 for the whole of 2023 and 303 the previous year. Substandard safety measures have made these fires more damaging.

At NOLIMIT, decorative modifications to the front of the building had made it difficult for firefighters to extinguish the blaze. It was also poorly ventilated, the FSD said. A senior company management source revealed that about 60-70% of their stock was damaged during the six hours it took to control the fire. But he insisted that all safety regulations had been followed.

Last year, in Pettah, employees were stuck inside a burning building as there was no escape route and alternative exits were blocked. One employee died. In Thursday’s fire on Armour Street, the tyre shop had not followed the right guidelines in the storage of flammable substances.

Factory unions worry that expanding staff without increasing physical and safety capacity threatens workers. Joint Secretary of the Free Trade Zone Union Anton Marcus said that workers are being persuaded to accept unsafe standards in return for extra money.

“For example, many garment factories have air conditioning to protect textile quality but without proper ventilation the fabrics generate a lot of dust that cause respiratory issues,” he explained. “So now companies have started a dust allowance. But this solution is unsafe and risky.”

Another union representative said, “We are not as bad as Bangladesh” referring to major fires that have engulfed Dhaka for years including the Rana Plaza factory fire that killed over 1000 people. “But there are still a number of problems.”

The Sunday Times also found that shop employees, including those in buildings that have experienced fires in recent times, did not receive any fire safety training.

The FSD encouraged people to take the correct measures when a fire erupts: “Immediately call 110 and clearly explain the nature of the fire and the materials involved.” They also encourage businesses to make use of the fire safety training conducted by the Department’s academy.

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