Over the course of 28 years, from 1980 to 2008, more than 31,000 people died of 310 cases of fire, according to a survey of EM-DAT, the international disaster database of the Center for Research and Epidemiology of Disasters.
A couple of weeks ago, classes and student activities were disrupted at Br. Andrew Gonzales Hall and Enrique Razon Sports Complex because of a fire drill. The fire was staged to have originated at a parking level of the Sports Complex. Occupants of that building, regardless of whether they were in the middle of class or bath, were asked to immediately evacuate.
Because the information dissemination was effective, the students were able to disperse quickly for evacuation.
The fire drill operations at the Andrew building, on the other hand, were just plain horrible. Students and professors alike did not have the sense of urgency to comply with the drill. They just lazily piled to the fire escapes. Apart from the fire alarm going off, occupants of the building had no other means of knowing what was going on, nor did they even care.
One account of a student who was at the building goes this way: “Had it been a real fire, we certainly would have died.”
I have heard of two accounts of fire, within the last two decades, which occurred in the University. One is during the mid-2000s, a canteen fire at the same building with the disastrous drill, the Andrew building. Another is a fire at a laboratory at the sixth floor of St. Joseph Hall in the early 2000s. Furthermore, also in St. Joseph Hall, there is an account that in the late 80s, the sixth floor went ablaze.
The mere three cases of fire occurrences are proof that the unexpected does happen. Remember Sept. 2009; nobody really bothered with the rain that heavily poured, but no one thought Ondoy would kill hundreds of people either.
We need not wait four months for the fire prevention season before taking a look at the University’s preventive measures. It is about time that we be constantly conscious with issues concerning life and death, such as fire.
It is ironic that with life on the line, many students and teachers having classes at the Andrew building did not take the fire drill seriously. They made their way to the ground floor at a leisurely pace. They saw the whole drill as an inconvenience.
However, it must also be considered that a terrifying mistake in the Andrew fire drill was the failure to inform the people regarding the evacuation. This is in contrast with the instructions given at the students at the Sports Complex.
Furthermore, the infrastructure is also not very amiable for conducting evacuations when untoward incidents, like fire, occur. It is not enough that a building like Andrew comply with the basic requirements of the Fire Code since the institution brags it as the tallest school building in the country. Along with the effort to show off the structure should be a stronger effort to keep its occupants alive.
A full classroom of the Andrew building will have around 40 students. A conservative estimate of six classrooms means there around 240 students per floor. Another conservative estimate of eight floors full of classrooms means that the building can hold around 1920 students simultaneously having classes. Do not forget that there are also offices located on this building.
We tried to take the physical dimensions of the fire escapes at the Andrew building and found out that, fortunately, they are fit for evacuation of a thousand people per fire escape. However, the problem is where all of these people will go after they get out of the fire escape.
Occupants of the Andrew building have two places to run to, depending on the location of the fire: Taft Ave. and Fidel Reyes St. In case the fire is near the Taft side, the thousands of occupants will have to evacuate to the other side.
Then again, occupants of the Sports Complex will have to leave their building also. Hence, Fidel Reyes St. will be far too crowded that the evacuees themselves may hinder fire rescue operations.
I can almost feel a post-traumatic stress coming just thinking about more than a couple of thousand people who may turn into ashes if—God forbid—fire does bring the Andrew building to the ground.
Even the Fire Code itself needs to be polished. Its provisions that pertain to the responsibilities of the building administrators are limited to the physical aids of evacuation in case of fire, such as fire basic fire exit requirements, fire extinguishers and fire alarms. However, the non-physical aspects, such as preparedness for fire disaster of building occupants, are quite neglected. There is even no mention of a fire drill in the Code, hence building administrators are not mandated to conduct them.
It will also be good if DLSU evaluates the accessibility for fire rescue of some buildings. The whole stretch of St. Joseph Hall is not exposed to passages of a fire truck unless the fire truck is given permission to run over the SJ Walk. Firefighters will also have a difficult time accessing the front of Yuchengco building, unless they run through the LS building.
In an educational institution like DLSU, exams may make or break a student’s career. If the student fails the exam, he or she may repeat the course for the following term. The fire drill is also an exam—an exam whether the occupants will live or die in case of fire, and the price to pay here is life.