Conflagration Underscores Problem with Safety
China Times editorial (Taipei, Taiwan, ROC)
March 8, 2011
"It passed inspection. How how could such an accident occur?" A fire of undetermined origin took nine lives in a Taichung nightclub. Taichung City Mayor Jason Hu was stunned. The entire nation was stunned. Safety inspections by governments at all levels failed to ensure public safety. They failed to prevent business owners from flouting the law for the sake of larger profits. That being the case, who if anyone can ensure public safety?
Sixteen years ago, the Wei Er Kang Restaurant fire in Taichung shocked the entire nation by taking 64 lives. Then mayor Lin Po-jung was impeached by the Control Yuan and suspended by the Executive Yuan for six months. This provided the public on Taiwan with a painful lesson in public safety. This provided the government on Taiwan with an opportunity to review existing safety measures. The fire prevention codes and regulations were completely rewritten. Non-flammable materials were made mandatory for public spaces. Restaurants and bars were required to purchase accident insurance. Police and fire fighters were separated and made independent. This allowed fire fighting to be more professional.
Sixteen years later, a fire in a Taichung City night club has claimed nine lives. According to the city government, the night club passed 21 safety inspections conductted over a period of five years. It was registered as a juice bar. But according to Deputy Mayor Hsiao Chia-chi, the city government still subjected it to the most stringent safety inspection standards. For example, the recent recent fire may have been caused by insulation foam on the ceiling which failed to pass inspection three years earlier. As a result, water and electricity were cut. The store came under new management. It was renamed "Huck" and resumed operations as a juice bar.
Based on the above account, the store was clearly registered as one thing, but operated as something else altogether. The city government failed to conduct a serious investigation. Juice bars are still public facilities. Foam insulation must still prevent fires. Did safety inspections ascertain whether it was safe? The most expedient way for business owners to maximize profits is to minimize operating costs. But competent authorities must keep public safety in mind. They must demand that business owners abide by the most stringent industry standards.
As everyone knows, Taichung has the most varied entertainment facilities on Taiwan. The more difficult an industry is to manage, the more severe government regulations must be. Otherwise, regulations will have no effect. Three years ago, the Taichung City Government explicitly forbade open flames in public facilities. This applied even to wedding receptions. The city government imposed regulations, but no penalties. Not only did it fail to impose penalties, it even failed to conduct inspections. Nightclubs conducted business as usual, behind closed doors. Only customers knew that male strippers were putting on a show, replete with fireworks.
The general public may not know that public facilities are not allowed to stage fireworks displays. But business owners are. The male strippers who staged the performance were reportedly stand ins. But the nightclub owner should have informed them that their show could not include open flames. The male strippers' employer should also have informed them that any show involving open flames were prohibited. Why did the performers juggle torches in such a tiny space? According to the performers, the club was too dark. They could not tell the the stage ceiling was too low. Clearly they failed to do their homework by checking out the venue. In any event, it was clear that shows involving open flames were prohibited. So why were business owners unafraid to defy the law? The only explanation is that this night club in Taichung was not alone in holding such shows. Night club owners never ran into any problems. Night club owners never got caught. As a result they grew ever bolder.
Performers putting on such shows never intended that their shows lead to such catastrophes. But besides being creative, novel, and popular, shows must also be responsible. They must be responsible for their own safety and for the safety of their customers. The male strippers should have been accompanied by two or three monitors to guard against the risk of fire. Had this been done, a disaster might not have ensued. Clearly fire prevention was not something the group paid much attention to, or cared much about. But who today would dare stage a similar performance?
Night clubs are about entertainment. Few people pay any attention to safety. Who bothers to check on the number of emergency exits and their locations before entering? After a few drinks, one's alertness diminishes. The juggled torches turn into a roaring conflagration. Guests assumed they were merely special effects. When they realized something was wrong, some used their own water glasses to fight the fire. They failed to realize their glasses were filled with liquor, and not water. As a result the situation soon spiraled out of control. But one can hardly blame the guests for having too good a time. When the male strippers first fled the scene, did anyone notice that no one was using the fire extinguishers next to the stage?
The Wei Er Kang Restaurant fire broke out six years ago. The Control Yuan exacted Draconian punishments. This time, the Control Yuan will find it difficult to absolve the Taichung City Government of responsibility. Twenty one safety inspections were conducted over five years. The building department, labor affairs department, and fire department conducted joint safety inspections. Three times the club passed muster. Was this due to inadequate attention to detail? Were the competent authorities negligent in their duties? No matter what the Control Yuan investigation uncovers, the Taichung City Government's first step must be to correct its errors. It must conduct a thorough inspection of all the city's public facilities. It must check their registrations against their operations, making sure they match. It must thoroughly inspect all facilities for safety, and bring them into compliance. Any business owners found in violation, must be thoroughly investigated and severely punished. Some must even be shut down. After all, human life is paramount. Negligence cannot be permitted.