Wednesday, 4 May 1994
Dáil Éireann Debate
11. Miss Quill asked the Minister for the Environment in view of increased loss of life caused by house fires, if it is intended to make it compulsory that smoke detectors be fitted in all dwelling houses; and if he will make a statement on the matter.
18. Ms O'Donnell asked the Minister for the Environment the plans, if any, he has to introduce compulsory smoke alarms in all local authority housing in view of the recent tragedies caused by fires; and if he will make a statement on the matter.
43. Mr. Callely asked the Minister for the Environment the guidelines issued by his Department for fire precaution in the home; if all local authorities adhere to these guidelines in the construction of local authority housing; and if he will make a statement on the matter.
At the outset, I express sympathy to the families who suffered bereavements in the recent fire tragedies. Very substantial progress has been made in recent years in developing the fire service. There has been heavy investment in new fire stations, in new equipment and communications systems; staffing has been expanded and training has been improved; regulations, guidelines, codes of practice, and so on have been issued; and publicity and promotional work has  been stepped up. In spite of all of this investment and effort, it is tragic that some 50 lives are lost in fires each year.
Recent incidents emphasise the need to review the situation on a continuing basis; to maintain the ongoing investment and training programmes; and to redouble our efforts in the field of education and awareness of fire safety. This latter is particularly important in relation to dwellings because, in the last analysis, fire safety in the home depends on the individual householder.
I am strongly in favour of smoke alarms being installed in all homes and I have publicly advocated this course on many occasions. I believe that such alarms, which are inexpensive, can contribute in a valuable way to reducing the toll of house fires. However, I do not consider that it should be made compulsory to fit smoke detectors or alarms in existing dwelling houses. A householder who installs an alarm by choice is likely to be far more conscious of the need for fire safety to do so. Besides, there is unlikely to be a serious commitment to maintenance of an alarm (including battery replacement) on the part of a person who has installed one only to comply with the law. I believe, therefore, that it is better to convince householders of the value of smoke alarms through advice and publicity. To this end, I will continue publicly to draw attention to the advantages of having a smoke alarm fitted in the home and the National Safety Council will continue its publicity campaigns on the subject. Last year, the council administered a special scheme in the Dublin area under which 1,000 smoke alarms were installed in the homes of elderly people. The council has since been asked to evaluate the project as a basis for further action.
The management and maintenance of its rented dwellings is the responsibility of local authorities themselves. In 1989, my Department wrote specially to housing authorities reminding them of the need for adequate fire safety provision in both new and existing local authority dwellings and enclosing a comprehensive schedule of fire safety measures which could assist in achieving  this objective. That letter included a recommendation that each housing authority should take steps actively to encourage their tenants to provide, and keep in good working order, suitable domestic smoke detectors.
In relation to the provision of new houses, whether local authority or private, the guidance documents issued by my Department to accompany the building regulations contain comprehensive guidance on matters such as means of escape (including the provision of smoke alarms), internal and external fire spread, and access and facilities for the fire brigade. In effect, in the absence of more effective identified safeguards, it is mandatory to install a smoke alarm in any new or reconstructed house.
Miss Harney: I join the Minister in extending sympathy to the many families who, tragically, have been bereaved as a result of recent fires in Kerry and in Ashbourne, County Meath. Is the Minister aware that the honorary secretary of the Fire Officers' Association said last night that services are deteriorating and shortly fire engines may well break down due to age, that we need to spend approximately £7 million on capital expenditure each year just to stand still, never mind improving the service, which is far in excess of what the Government has allocated this year?
Mr. M. Smith: There are always circumstances where we could increase the allocation to deserving cases. Deputy Harney will appreciate that from the mid-eighties to date investment in fire services has been unprecedented, approximately £72 million in total, that relates to capital refurbishment, the building of approximately 82 new fire stations, the purchase of 248 appliances and an increase in the numbers in the service from approximately 32 to 140 officers. Needless to say we shall continue to review the overall position with a view to improving the services wherever possible. I would urge people, for the sake of the small investment necessary, to purchase smoke alarms and ensure that they are properly  maintained. However, such services do not prevent fires, they give a warning and allow people an opportunity to escape which they might not have otherwise. The public generally, local authorities and all of us can contribute to raising awareness of fire hazards, so that the kinds of tragedies to which Deputy Harney referred, and with which all of us sympathise, can be prevented.
Miss Harney: The Minister did not respond to the comments of the honorary secretary about which I asked. Would the Minister accept that we have the highest level of deaths from fires in Europe, ours being double the rate in Denmark, which is the second highest, and that this is a cause of grave concern? Would he agree that we need to invest more money in this lifesaving service to ensure that nobody loses their life for want of proper equipment being available to the fire services?
Mr. M. Smith: I am aware of the statement made last evening. I have referred to what has been possible to date, to the levels of capital expenditure, which have been substantial and which will be reviewed in the light of prevailing economic circumstances to ascertain whether they might be increased further. I do not know where the statistics furnished in relation to fire deaths here emanated from because they do not accord with those in my Department; they would appear to be very much out of kilter with the reality. Nonetheless, the loss of, on average, 50 lives each year as a result of fires is 50 too many. Whether we compare favourably or unfavourably with other countries in that respect we must step up our programmes of prevention. Awareness and education are the elementary factors because, in the final analysis, householders themselves must endeavour to protect themselves and their families. Any compulsory assistance would be unlikely to be effective because it could not be policed in all circumstances. The awareness-educational programme will be continued and enhanced to the utmost extent possible.
Mr. Boylan: In the context of the prevention of loss of life through fire and the panic among the public following the recent tragedies, can the Minister give an assurance that all the fire alarms on the market are of a proper standard? With the growth in population in many of our small towns and villages would he consider it appropriate that there be an auxiliary fire service in such areas in the form of trained people with equipment who could enter a house and get people out before there was loss of life and before the regular fire brigade service could reach the scene? Would the Minister agree that that in itself would be a form of prevention and a source of great comfort to many people in that they would know there was such a service readily available rather than having one located some eight to 15 miles away, as happened in one case recently?
Mr. M. Smith: The provision and maintenance of fire services primarily are matters for local authorities. As the Deputy will be aware, my Department give capital grants for the reconstruction of older and the building of new fire stations, and for the purchase of appliances, indirectly, through the rates support grant. It is primarily a matter for local authorities to lay down their programmes of fire services within their remit. In relation to the quality and safety of smoke alarm systems, there are companies in this country who produce such products to the highest specifications. I am quite sure they meet any market requirements in terms of quality, safety and so on.
Mr. Gilmore: I join other Members in expressing sympathy to the families of people who lost their lives so tragically in recent fires. Is the Minister concerned at the number of fires occurring in domestic dwellings? Has he carried out, or does he intend to undertake any survey with regard to the levels of fire safety in existing housing stocks, in particular the possibility that some fires may be caused by faulty electrical wiring, poor construction methods or materials? Has he any plans  to undertake a national fire safety survey of domestic dwellings to advise householders of potential fire hazards?
Mr. M. Smith: There is a number of reviews at present under way. No doubt Deputy Gilmore will be familiar with the one taking place in Dublin in relation to apartments and flats because of the possible consequences of fire in some such buildings. We have been in contact with local authorities, emphasising the need for a re-examination of their policies in this regard. I will give the House an undertaking that I will ascertain whether there are other measures that could be taken to strengthen such systems in a manner which would enable people to deal with problems because, in certain circumstances, people may be unaware of the potential fire hazards in their homes.
Mr. Barrett: I join other Members in expressing sincere sympathy to those families who lost loved ones in recent fire accidents. I would endorse Deputy Boylan's excellent suggestion about an auxiliary fire service. Could the Minister begin by having his departmental officials draw up some guidelines whereby local authorities could encourage a fire service within their remit, perhaps to train people in essentials — first aid etc. Perhaps we could encourage the community at large to be trained in the essentials of what to do in the initial stages of fire and before the fire brigade arrived? Could that be done at central level, through the Minister's Department, and the information circulated to local authorities to encourage them train local communities as appropriate?
Mr. M. Smith: The Fire Officers' Association and the county fire officers conduct certain courses and programmes throughout their jurisdictions, a procedure which perhaps could be intensified. There is a number of voluntary services nationwide, peculiar to different areas, particularly in the case of some outlying ones where it is not always possible to have a full array of services located. I will undertake to ascertain to  what extent these types of programmes could be developed so that there would be at least an immediate fallback in most areas while awaiting the arrival of the regular fire service. It is not something I could guarantee the House could be done comprehensively and/or immediately. There are dedicated personnel and new training programmes in the area of the saving of lives. Clearly there are areas where there may be apprehension about certain dangers and where we might perhaps develop pilot schemes on the lines of some already in place in other parts of the country.
Mr. McCormack: Is the Minister aware of a new appliance to extinguish chimney fires which is being produced in Abbey, Loughrea, County Galway? Would he have this relatively cheap device installed in all new local authority houses or in existing stocks of local authority houses? I have seen the device demonstrated. It has been verified by engineers as a most effective means of quenching a chimney fire within two minutes.
Mr. M. Smith: It would be my hope that every helpful suggestion could be taken on board. First, there is a number of different solutions to chimney fires, the first of which would not be the provision of a facility to quench them but rather to prevent them by way of householders having chimneys cleaned at least twice yearly. There are opportunities for entrepreneurs in Galway, Clare and other places. I am sure they have the capability to penetrate the market but they cannot seek an endorsement from the Department.
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