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Thursday, August 11, 2016, 00:43

Veteran firefighter recalls 37 years of service

By Shadow Li

HONG KONG - Director of Fire Services Lai Man-hin on Wednesday said the 108-hour four-alarm fire that broke out at a mini-storage facility in an industrial building in Ngau Tau Kok in June was one of his most memorable fires during his 37 years of service with the department.

Lai will begin his retirement on Friday. Lai’s deputy, Li Kin-yat, will succeed him and become director of fire services.

The hardest moment, Lai told a media gathering, was when the first firefighter, Thomas Cheung Yiu-sing, died battling the inferno. But the fire showed no signs of abating in the heavily populated neighborhood.

Lai said that there is no shortcut to learning how to fight a blaze. Firefighters can only learn this by going to the scene of the fire.

Even as a director, Lai said he sometimes had to go to the fire scene. He did this during the deadly blaze in Fa Yuen Street in 2011, which killed nine people and injured 34, and during the fatal fire at the mini-storage facility in June.

Firefighters rely on each other when they enter the fire scene and Lai said he treasures that brotherhood.

In fact, Lai recalled that he almost died in a blaze that broke out in a cotton factory in Kowloon East back in 1980s, if it had not been for a colleague, who pulled him up when he missed a step.

The Ngau Tau Kwok fire was the first time so many hoax messages from social media were sent. This affected the morale of frontline firefighters, Lai said, adding that even he received WhatsApp messages, spreading misinformation that the industrial building had collapsed. This occurred when he had just stepped out of the building after an inspection with Buildings Department officers.

After the Ngau Tau Kwok fire, Lai said the department had adjusted its strategy by shortening the duration for firefighters inside the fire scene to within 15 minutes, in hot weather with temperatures of more than 30 C.

Lai defended the department's strategy during the blaze which claimed two lives of senior firemen. He said it had always been the department's priority to keep firefighters safe.

Lai also explained why the department did not allow the fire to die out naturally - as many people questioned why it risked firefighters’ lives when there was no one inside the building.

Lai said that if a building collapses while the fire rages, it will affect neighboring residents and their properties. Also, as past experience suggests, if a fire is left to burn itself out, dead bodies will usually be recovered from the fire scene after it is extinguished, added the veteran firefighter.

After the fire, the government conducted an inter-department investigation and a citywide inspection of mini-storage facilities. Some of these were in very old industrial buildings without sprinkler systems like the one in Ngau Tau Kok.

The Fire Services Department said it has inspected 502 mini-storage facilities out of 674. The department has subsequently issued 50 fire hazard abatement notices against 16 mini-storage facilities. The Buildings Department, in its inspection of 301 such facilities, issued 33 orders including 16 removal orders.

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