Fire safety for the elderly and other vulnerable people: Foreign domestic workers, entire communities should receive training, says NMP Anthea Ong

Foreign domestic workers (FDW) should be trained in fire safety and evacuation procedures, as they are often responsible for being caregivers of the elderly and other vulnerable people, in addition to being highly at risk themselves, said Nominated Member of Parliament Anthea Ong.

Speaking in Parliament on Mon (5 Aug) during a debate on the Fire Safety (Amendment) Bill, Ms Ong said that the necessity to train FDWs to adopt such safety measures arises out of an urgent need to “update and reinforce fire safety measures in residential buildings”, as the elderly and the differently-abled are particularly susceptible to dangers posed by such fire incidents.

“Fires are a particular risk for two vulnerable groups within the elderly segment. There are 82,000 people who live with dementia at home … This number is expected to grow beyond 100,000 by 2030,” she stressed.

Citing the case of 83-year-old Lim Mang Yin, whose cause of death was traced to the inhalation of smoke and fumes from a fire in her daughter’s Bukit Panjang flat in May this year, Ms Ong said that Madam Lim was “one out of the four elderly who died in home fires between 2015 and 2017”.

Madam Lim, who was wheelchair-bound and had dementia, was likely unable to exit the premises on her own at the time, according to the findings of State Coroner Kamala Ponnampalam in May.

Ms Ong also noted that approximately 10 per cent of the Singapore population aged 65 and above are illiterate as of 2015, which may pose as a huge hindrance for such seniors in the event that a fire breaks out and the need to evacuate subsequently arises.

“These seniors may not understand the fire evacuation maps even if they are prominently displayed in their blocks, in the event of a fire. Fire safety is clearly not the responsibility of SCDF alone – the responsibility is one to be shared across ministries and the community,” she said.

Citing the efforts of volunteers such as Dementia Friends, Ms Ong said that the community in each neighbourhood in general “could support persons with dementia by checking on them regularly and advising them on minimising the risk of fire hazards”.

Additional fire safety measures such as storing fire extinguishers and installing water sprinklers in every household should also be implemented, said the NMP.

“While I concede that there is a significant financial consideration in installing water sprinklers in each and every household, installing sprinklers in vulnerable households where the resident does not have the ability to quell the fire on his own or evacuate quickly must be an option to be seriously considered,” she said, adding: “Would the elderly lady on wheelchair in Bukit Panjang have lived if she had a sprinkler in her flat?”

Noting that the Fire Code currently provides for the installation of sprinklers in certain areas of HDB buildings, Ms Ong said that the Ministry of National Development replied in a response to a parliamentary question posed in July last year that “SCDF’s assessment at this point in time is that there is no need to install sprinklers within the residential units”.

“Is there now a new position on this by SCDF, especially considering the 54 fires involving personal mobility devices in the first half of this year – a number that has more than doubled compared to the same period last year?” She questioned.