Over the past few decades, rapid urbanization has filled Indonesia’s cities with concrete buildings, brick walls and paved alleyways and encased its rivers within steep embankments, slowly replacing tightly packed mazes of huts and markets that were easily engulfed by fire.
However, despite fewer flammable structures and the perception that the number of fires is declining, fire safety is still overlooked both in slum areas and in many new housing complexes, raising concerns that major blazes could reoccur with fatal consequences.
The Jakarta Fire Department recorded 1,089 fires in 2014 in which 34 people died, a figure that probably does not represent the real situation. By comparison, the smaller population of London saw 19,545 fires in 2014 and 40 fatalities in 2013.
That comparison is a reminder that national statistics in Indonesia are not kept and experts believe that fires are one of the most underreported types of disaster.
For instance, the country’s national Disaster and Information Data Agency (DIBI), which monitors non-natural disasters such as transportation, industrial accidents and terrorism, does not keep a tally of domestic or urban fires.
The triggers of fires in the country’s cities also vary. In Jakarta, around 70% of fires are caused by electrical short circuits while in Surabaya gas stoves are believed to be the main cause. Common to all is a lack of fire safety awareness in poorer households and seldom enforced regulations.
The case of Jakarta
In 2011, then Home Minister Gamawan Fauzi stated that 15% of all fires across the archipelago occur in Jakarta, a city of more than 10 million inhabitants. The main cause of fires in the capital is electrical short circuits, with around 60% to 70% of all cases, according to different estimates. Short circuits are followed as causes of fires by misuse of stoves, cigarettes and various forms of negligence, such as burning garbage in crowded environments.
While fires can occur at the most unexpected times and places, the densely populated districts of Tambora, Kalideres and Cengkareng in West Jakarta have consistently ranked as the most fire-prone areas in the capital.
West Jakarta registered 188 cases between January and September 2014, more than any other area in the capital, according to the West Jakarta Fire and Disaster Management Agency.
Tambora, widely regarded as the most densely populated area in Southeast Asia, is particularly notorious for large fires. Thirty houses in the district were lost in a fire last November and 50 in August 2012, despite the local fire department receiving 23 motorcycles earlier that year to deploy firefighters to its narrow streets.
Fire spreads easily in tight-packed communities where buildings are often composed of highly flammable materials, but where access to water is scarce and fire trucks are unable to penetrate the narrow alleyways that run through the area.
Overall in 2014, around 9,000 families or 17,000 people were displaced by fire incidents in Jakarta, according to the city’s fire department. Another 293 residents were rescued from fires while 79 were injured and 34 killed in 1,089 fires causing Rp398 billion in material losses. Fifteen fire brigade officers were also injured in the operations.
Similar figures have been logged in previous years, with around 800 fires consistently recorded between 1998 and 2012 – an indication that statistics have improved rather than fires increased, according to firefighters interviewed by Concord in one of South Jakarta’s main fire stations.
The firemen confirmed that most of the 25 brigades located in the southern part of the capital are deployed to fight one to three separate fires each day – debunking official statistics that only three fires per day occur on average in the entire city.
Each district in the capital has at least one fire station or post, but some like Pasar Minggu or Setiabudi districts may have two or three depending on population and size. For each administrative city, such as South Jakarta, one main fire station coordinates efforts. This centralized structure, firefighters say, slows the fire department’s response time due to poor coordination.
Contrary to reports in recent years on understaffed and poorly equipped fire brigades, the officers interviewed said the department had been adequately upgraded in recent years and is no longer suffering from shortcomings.
Former Jakarta Fire Department chief Paimin Napitupulu said in 2011 that the force needed at least 7,000 officers to cover the capital, more than double the 2,351 personnel it currently has.
The medium-size fire station visited by Concord was equipped with three new fire trucks, including one equipped with a water cannon, and two pickup trucks with on-board pump systems.
The biggest obstacle faced by firefighters in Jakarta is traffic congestion and narrow streets which hinder access to most firefighting equipment. Parking is also an issue, as badly parked fire engines could create traffic gridlock, preventing reinforcements from reaching the site. Officers also bemoaned a lack of fire safety infrastructure such as fire hydrants, which are only available in big buildings of recent construction.
The firefighters interviewed by Concord confirmed that electrical fires are by far the most prevalent cause of fires in the city, with most statistics setting the figure at between 60% and 70% of all cases. Excessive power loads, poor insulation, the absence of main circuit breakers (MCB) or inadequate cables for high voltage lines are some of the triggers of electrical fires.
A Jakarta Post article in 2012 citing PLN and city officials also estimated that around 40% of homes in the capital are illegally connected to the power grid, although this figure could not be verified.
The issue has attracted a mix of reactions from public officials, ranging from marginal socialization programs conducted by PLN in poor areas of Jakarta and other cities to calls by the capital’s current and two preceding governors to cut the electricity supply to anyone illegally hooked on to the power grid.
However, a senior fire safety consultant who declined to be identified has told Concord that electrical hazards are an endemic problem no one has dared to properly address.
According to the regulations, electrical installations and connections to a power grid must be performed by a registered member of AKLI, the Electrical and Mechanical Contractors Association of Indonesia, and registered with PLN.
Members of AKLI are required to follow the safety and quality standards laid out by the National Standardization Body (SNI), which in its online database features dozens of guidelines for electrical installations and at least 45 specifications for fire prevention systems.
Furthermore, the Association for the Protection of National Electrical Installations (PPILN) has the role of regularly testing electrical installations of between 100 and 1000 volts, used in most buildings and residential areas, and issuing certificates of operation often required in the issuance of building permits.
For instance, in accordance with Jakarta Government Decree 132 of 2007, building developers must submit compliant electrical plans certified by an inspector to obtain a building permit (IMB).
However, the source said that in his decades-long experience as a fire safety consultant no laws have ever been enforced requiring residents or companies to request the service of such technicians.
“In older houses and slums the electricity and the wiring is below any (quality) level, there is nobody paying attention to it, there are no rules, no one is enforcing them,” he said.
The source added that inspections by PLN or industry associations are rare and when they do occur bribery is common. Separate reports also suggest that fines in the city’s district courts for electrical negligence in cities like Jakarta rarely amount to more than $30 or $40.
Prevention and compliance
While major hotels and international venues have for decades carefully installed and maintained fire prevention systems, commonly based on US National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) standards, national fire safety and prevention legislation is relatively new.
Until 2002, Indonesia had no proper national building law. Law No. 28/2002 regulates the functions of buildings, construction requirements and the role of the community and local governments in enforcing or overseeing safety standards.
Under the heading of safety aspects, Law No. 28/2002 makes fire safety a compulsory item alongside preventive measures for earthquakes or lightning strikes.
In addition, several ministerial regulations (Permen) have been enacted by different ministries since 2006 concerning fire safety, which are usually followed by local administrations to create their own by-laws.
However, a 2011 study by the Housing Research and Development Center (Puskim) estimated that only around 26% of Indonesia’s cities had developed Permen-based fire codes involving fire departments and fire preventive or mitigation requirements.
Even in major urban centers like Jakarta or Bandung a significant number of buildings and public venues do not comply with building regulations or have not upgraded old installations to meet current standards.
The Jakarta Fire Department estimated in 2011 that one-third of the buildings in the city are prone to fire, particularly older buildings such as ministries.
Indeed, in the past year two government offices including the State Palace compound and the Justice Ministry have experienced fires.
Another decade-old statistic from the fire department estimated in 2002 that 60% of Jakarta’s then 1,271 entertainment venues lacked adequate fire safety equipment and fire protection systems.
While this number is likely to have decreased, old nightclubs in areas like West Jakarta are notorious for being disorienting and filled with hazards such as small staircases for venues packing in hundreds of patrons, most of them smokers, and padlocked emergency exits.
In Bandung, a study conducted in 2014 on multi-storey residential towers (Rusunami) of recent construction found flagrant violations of safety standards. While the buildings were equipped with fire safety prevention systems such as hydrants, emergency staircases and fire extinguishers, the natural ventilation system of the 21-storey buildings would have aided fire and smoke propagation. Building materials such as wooden doors were also flammable.
The fire safety consultant interviewed shared similar experiences while inspecting major facilities in Jakarta such as Soekarno-Hatta Airport in Tangerang, Banten. “They use the wrong extinguishers on the wrong spots – it looks good, but it doesn’t work properly. The control tower had no protection and they have another control room where they have already had lots of fires, but no protection,” he said.
The consultant also described his recent experience in a factory in the middle of a fairly dense area where a lot of alcohol was used. “There was nothing (fire safety equipment), completely nothing, if anything happens the whole thing burns down and the houses around it as well. Yet they were controlled and inspected by the local fire department (who) have absolutely no clue what is required, they give them a bottle of beer and they sign off on the document,” he said.
According to the consultant, while owners and managers of large buildings know that fire safety planning is a complex matter, they are also aware that the administration is unable to police the matter thoroughly. He says firefighters and fire safety officials lack a complete understanding of the regulations and are incapable of identifying fire hazards.
As for the equipment at the fire department, the consultant says appearances may not mean much. “In Jakarta they have good fire engines, made by a German company and they are good quality, but if you don’t maintain them they are of no use.”
“I once did an investigation in one of the fire stations in the city at the request of the local mayor and I found that from the beginning the building had a faulty telephone, the telephone was not working – so how are you going to reach them? I don’t know! The fire trucks were not working, there was a fire truck filled with powder, they had equipment they didn’t know how to use, or refill, no money to refill it… (the fire department) doesn’t have the attention of the government,” he says.
Finding a solution
The consultant interviewed by Concord believes that when any attempt is made to overhaul the country’s fire safety standards, fire departments must be the first to undergo change. Besides more extensive training and better maintained facilities, he believes the fire department lacks the authority of other agencies, such as the capacity to close streets.
Equipment suited to the needs of big cities like Jakarta is also necessary, as big trucks are often of little use on the capital’s narrow back roads.
Another expert, Pelita Harapan University civil engineering lecturer Manlian Ronald A. Simanjuntak, believes local governments need to revise building regulations to make them compliant with fire safety standards and enforce them.
Simanjuntak also recommends local governments map urban growth to prevent “changes” in the environment that could interfere with fire safety.
Fire is a risk in any environment, and even more so in cities such as Jakarta and other major metropolises of Indonesia. Subscribers involved in the provision of office and residential space need to take into account the relatively high risk of fire and make thorough inspections of any property being considered for rental or purchase and ensure that high-rise building codes at apartment and office blocks include well-maintained safety equipment and standards.