Fuel for the fire

Many families do not have basic firefighting equipment in their homes or know how to use the equipment that should be available in their buildings.

The well-publicized fire in Petah Tikva two weeks ago highlighted a problem that has been little talked about by most people in Israel for years. The ferocity of this fire, occurring in an older, eight-story building, illustrated a real danger in many residential buildings (both old and new), despite their being built from concrete and cinder blocks. In my more than 20 years' experience as an insurance agent in this country, primarily in Netanya, I have dealt with numerous fires in seemingly "fireproof" buildings constructed from the aforementioned materials. Netanya, with its growing population of more than 160,000, has seen a big upsurge in high-rise construction projects, with many buildings exceeding 20 stories. Although many older buildings are being singled out as more likely to be involved in fires, newer ones are not immune. The higher the building, the more likelihood of death and injury in an event similar to the Petah Tikva blaze, as residents can become trapped in their apartments with no means to escape the smoke, gases and flames. Professionals dealing with these matters - including building inspectors, claims investigators, and fire fighters - will attest that many fires can be prevented and are often caused by overloading of or faulty electrical sockets and circuit boards in individual apartments. Insurance claims resulting from such fires include damage resulting from overheating power converters and transformers, electric space heaters placed too near to curtains and furniture, and even toasting seeds and nuts in kitchen ovens. Such fires caused catastrophic damage not only to the insured's apartment but also considerable damage to other apartments in the building. The abundance of flammable materials, both inside and outside, can feed and spread such fires to envelop larger areas in the building, which quickly spread to other sections of the building by high winds igniting plastic material on balconies, in living rooms and kitchens, and combustible materials in stairwells and hallways. Many people use these areas for storage of items such as boxes of clothing and paper, furniture, plastic children's toys, and old electrical appliances. In the Petah Tikva fire, items in the hallways ignited and, together with dense smoke and heat from the blaze, trapped many people in their apartments with no way out other than from their balconies. People are becoming careless in preventing such fires. Many families do not have basic firefighting equipment in their homes or even know how to use the equipment that should be available in their buildings. Firefighting equipment that is supposed to be in operating condition on each floor of apartment blocks is often not readily serviceable in an emergency, with hoses not long enough to reach inside apartments or inadequate water pressure. A lot can be done to educate the public regarding fire prevention in residences. A mandatory inspection of firefighting equipment in apartment blocks should be carried out at least once a year, with heavy fines levied on the house committees and/or construction companies if such equipment is inadequate. These inspections should include stairwells and common hallways. Insurance companies can help by initiating campaigns to have these inspections conducted, while offering special incentives for purchasing home fire prevention equipment such as smoke detectors and fire extinguishers. Fires like the one in Petah Tikva are a wake-up call to reduce the likelihood of such events in the future. But this can happen only with increased fire prevention education and public awareness.