Has Qatar learned its lesson post-Villaggio?
Never in Qatar's history has a fire raised so much concern. Erika Widén examines how the tragic Villaggio mall blaze that killed 13 young children in May 2012 has led authorities and businesses to review their emergency and safety measures, and asks whether anything has really changed.
On May 28, a major fire broke at the Gympanzee day care centre in Villaggio mall. A total of 19 people died, including 13 children, four women teachers and two civil defence personnel. According to the investigation committee, the fire started at a sportswear outlet due to faulty electrical wiring and immediately spread to adjacent Gympanzee. It was also reported that all parties concerned lacked appropriate licences to operate, and safety and evacuation measures were woefully inadequate.
The Villaggio tragedy prompted wideaspread public reaction. The Ministry of Social Affairs, in turn, immediately ordered all nurseries to use only the ground floor and in October 2012 a draft law was approved by the State Cabinet in order to monitor kindergartens and nurseries. The proposed law outlines that it will be compulsory for a nursery to obtain clearance from Civil Defence, prior to obtaining a license. The facility must be located on the ground floor, and not located on a main or busy road. Currently the Advisory Council is revising the draft law, and it is expected to be executed soon.
Most Doha nurseries themselves have taken additional steps to ensure the safety of their pupils. “The safety and security of the children in our nursery is one of our main concerns,” says Susan Harvie, manager of Acorn nursery. “Since we opened [March 2012] we have made sure that we have complied with all international standards, such as clear safety signs, staff training, staff student ratio, fire drills, procedures and our staff have first aid training.”
Sherien Moustafa, manager of Child Care Center Nursery says that their nursery opened three years ago and after the Villaggio accident they have installed more fire extinguishers and cameras to view the whole nursery, and have bought fire proof playmate foam flooring and toys for additional safety for the toddlers.
“The teachers have received first aid training and still we would like to improve the nursery. The playing area is new and I am constantly bringing healthy and secure materials for the children from the United Kingdom,” says Moustafa.
In an interview with a local Arabic daily nespapaer, Noora Al Hajiri, deputy director of family development affairs at the Ministry of Social Affairs advised parents that they should not admit their children to a nursery that did not hold a proper licence, including a commercial registration number. Al Hajiri stressed that the new law on nurseries will focus mainly on the safety and security of the premises besides health and hygiene, and academic qualifications of the teachers. Al Hajiri added “It will be mandatory for every new nursery when applying for a licence to obtain a certificate from the Civil Defence department stating that it fulfils the safety and security requirements.”
CITY CENTER DOHA
Following the Villaggio incident, one of Doha’s largest malls, City Center in West Bay, was closed for three weeks for inspection by the Civil Defence due to safety concerns. The centre has a total of 317 shopping outlets, and some were not allowed to operate until they met the safety requirements. Although the centre does not have a day care centre facility, there is Fun City, which is an entertainment area for children.
TheEDGE spoke to the director of ECE the facility management of City Center Doha, Olaf M. Kindt with regard to the measures the mall has taken in ensuring safety and security of its customers. “Villaggio showed, it can happen very fast and that’s why we are giving our tenants a very short notice of 24 hours,” he says, “and even if it’s a violation it is unacceptable. We have the power to close the shops and, this is important to underline, we are using this power.”
Kindt adds that in general City Center is working towards achieving an international security standard. “As our management ECE is based in Germany, and our company has more than 180 shopping centres under their management, therefore we are very structured and straight with fire and safety,” says Kindt.
According to Kindt, City Center has 55 trained security guards working around the clock, and an inhouse fire prevention team consisting of five guards who are also on duty 24 hours a day. The fire prevention team is highly trained in emergencies circumstances, such as fire, electrical and/or chemical problems.
Kindt adds that recently one of their tenants had a short circuit in one of the outlets, and within a minute and a half the prevention team arrived. In March there was also a minor fire in the food court area, and although the fire was quickly extinguished, the shopping centre was evacuated immediately.
“One of the food courts is closed because we are still doing the reconstruction, and because of the fire in March, the pipes and tubes are contaminated and we are now implementing the latest safety standards of Qatar,” says Kindt.
Kindt explains that one of the new requirements from the Civil Defence is to have flashing-lights throughout all areas of the mall for those who cannot hear properly to be aware that something has happened. In Europe the norm is that escalators do not stop, whereas Qatar’s Civil Defence requests they stop immediately.
“The Civil Defence request is to integrate that into the system and this is what we did. The incident is reported, the alarm is sounded and immediately the escalators stop and the sliding doors in the main entrance open, so the people can evacuate,” explains Kindt.
Recently, City Center held a fire drill during the day involving the Civil Defence in order to create full awareness to both their tenants and more than 1000 staff. “From time to time we need to refresh this because our employees are changing, and we need to remind our employees that these emergencies can happen,” says Kindt, who believes that now after the Villaggio accident, all Qatari businesses are more sensitive and prepared when it comes to the safety of their tenants and customers.
Nevertheless, not long after Villaggio, which was closed for investigation and refurbishment for four months, reopened in September, a group of children were trapped on a fun ride at the mall’s Gonodolania indoor themed park. While the ride was in mid air, due to a technical malfunction it stalled for about an hour and a half.
The Ministry of Interior posted on their Twitter account. “Civil Defence rescue children without any injuries from a ride in Villaggio as it was stopped suddenly.” Following the Villaggio fire and the Gondolania’s ride incident, during the recent Eid holidays many parents were reluctant to bring their children to play areas, which are mostly located within malls. Although there was no fire, it created further distress for many.
In a recent Qatari newspaper article, a concerned local father said, “We visit malls but with deep fear to let children play in fun areas due to the two recent incidents.” In the article Qatari parents also expressed that there should be safety requirements such as rescue workers and first aid facilities to tackle an emergency, in addition to constant maintenance of play area equipment, age limit and that there be a caretaker present.
Despite Civil Defence efforts, there are still clearly other safety measures which need to be addressed post-Villagio fire. The amusement park ride incident has led the local community, perhaps for the first time, to question how prepared are all the facilities open to the public in Doha to handle an emergency.
Not that the business community itself has not reacted. Jinith T. Varghese, a representative of Enertech Qatar, a company that provides health, safety and environmental training tells TheEDGE, “After the Villaggio incident we have experienced a sudden increase in the number of delegates and students attending the fire fighting and first aid training, and many enquiries regarding consultation for emergency drills and preparedness.”
Varghese says that the delegates and students are coming from construction or oil and gas industries, hotels, offices, apartments and other sectors.
CIVIL DEFENCE AMENDED LAW
In August HH the Emir Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani signed a new law, which amends the Civil Defence law issued in 1977. The new law authorises Civil Defence to improve and monitor the safety of all of Qatar’s buildings.
Mark Kenyon is a chartered safety and health practitioner and HSE manager of Velosi Qatar, a quality control and assurance company.
“The biggest and most fundamental change that has occurred in Qatar is the new Civil Defence Law,” says Kenyon. “Civil Defence have vastly increased the numbers of inspections that they conduct and it is also a requirement for companies to have their building inspected prior to the renewal of their commercial registration.”
Kenyon explains that the Civil Defence have proactively undertaken a number of fire and emergency evacuation drills in prominent public buildings and continue to do so to raise the need for building owners, operators and employers to understand what to do in the event of any emergency.
Kenyon also believes that the legacy of Villaggio undoubtedly created far greater awareness now for fire and fire risk management across all sectors, but this is not just as a result of the fire and includes all of the law enforcement action taken post-Villaggio.
There have of course always been laws in Qatar that ensure certain standards and safety requirements before obtaining a certain license for any business to operate in the country.
However, as Villaggio has ostensibly shown, the sentiment of many in Qatar is that there are still inadequate monitoring and reporting and enforcement mechanisms, which permits violations of the certain laws to continue, at least by some unscrupulous businessmen. Certainly, if this is the case, it is down to saving money as it will always cost less to construct and maintain buildings with substandard materials and to not train staff and make accommodation for health and safety equipment etcetera.
If anything can be learnt from the Villaggio fire – for Qatar’s businesses or the country’s safety construction preparedness is that parents, businessmen must adhere to apply and preserve safety measures, and to be vocal when attention is required to ensure a secure environment. It is the business owners, businessmen, parents and the community as a whole whose responsibilty it is to take action, but there is clearly still a long way to go.
Unfortunately, at the time of writing, the criminal court hearing for the Villaggio fire deaths has been postponed for the fourth time, since the owners of Gympanzee day care centre were not present. The parents of the children killed have released a dissapointed statement uploaded on Doha News website recently stating “The delay in the legal system is beginning to shed an unfavourable light on the country and the courts…the world is watching.”