x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 18 January 2018

After fire horror we must focus on prevention

A street address system would help keep fire emergencies from becoming tragedies. So would widespread awareness that fire prevention requires vigilance and foresight.

The sudden death of six people in a house fire in Ajman has sent ripples of shock, pity and dread across the country. We normally expect to be safest at home; the idea that a family's flat or villa can become its death trap is therefore truly horrifying.

Girls age 7, 11 and 14, their widowed mother and two maids all died near the normally tranquil hour of 9am on Tuesday, unable to escape as fire spread too rapidly through their villa. The mother struggled to save the girls, officials say, but only one person present, the woman's 15-year-old son, escaped and survived.

The natural universal reactions of revulsion at the news and pity for the victims should now be joined by another feeling: determination to decrease the risks of any more such fires.

In this context concern should begin with an all-too-familiar problem in this country: when the Ajman woman telephoned for rescue, "the address she gave was not right" and so firefighters had no choice but to wait precious minutes until they sighted a column of smoke.

For years, there has been talk of creating a unified address system. Until this talk turns to action, fire crews and ambulances will too often arrive late to the very places where they are urgently needed.

A number of alternatives can be considered, from a high-tech GPS system, to a simple postal-code-type grid that could be overlaid on a standard map, so as to give each few buildings a unique locator.

Clear addressing is not, however, the only measure we need. More should be done, also, to create a culture of fire safety: widespread public awareness, in other words, that mortal danger is always just a spark away.

The headlines about this Ajman tragedy will fade away, but risks to other families will not. How many of us have escape plans? When was the last time we checked our fire extinguishers - if, indeed, we have them? Are our electrical systems up to standard? Are sockets overloaded? Do our residences have smoke alarms? Are their batteries fresh? Have our children been briefed on what to do in case of a fire (or other sudden danger)? Can every person in our households old enough to use a phone instantly provide succinct accurate directions to the building?

We are too often reminded of the tragedy in fire. That's why fire prevention demands resolute vigilance in every home.