x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 21 January 2018

Doha tragedy is a reminder to plan for the worst

Doha's tragic mall fire should lead to renewed safety checks, tough inspections, more emergency drills, and better staff training at every mall, in Qatar and around the Gulf.

Monday's horror in a Doha shopping mall will now come under intense official and public scrutiny. As well it should: the fire that ripped through a childcare centre at Villaggio Mall killed 13 young children and four teachers; first reports said they were trapped after a staircase collapsed. Two firefighters also died.

Qatar's interior ministry has already announced an inquiry, but the disaster should also send a loud, clear and urgent message to property owners and public-safety officials beyond that country's borders.

Across the Gulf, rapid property development has created scores of major malls and other complexes for public use. These gleaming air-conditioned symbols of modernity give the impression of being comfortably exempt from the fire hazards we associate with souqs and other old facilities. Villaggio Mall, opened in 2006, was a good example, with its Italian theme and its broad mix of users from many countries.

But Monday's news should banish any complacency about newer buildings. Initial reports are inevitably unverified and imprecise but they suggest that fire alarms and sprinklers did not function properly, and that the floor plans available to would-be rescuers did not have exits marked properly. Then there is the question of why a stairway collapsed.

A calm inquiry should be able to confirm, clarify or negate each such claim. It is significant that the public prosecution service will conduct the probe; any criminal negligence would deserve stern punishment.

The underlying issue will however be more alarming, in a sense, if no criminal fault is found. Would that mean this could happen anywhere?

Either way, it should be obvious to every owner and operator of a large public building that no matter how splendid the edifice and how shiny the brand image, there is no substitute for meticulous safety planning.

Are alarms and sprinklers and safety gear checked and maintained frequently? Does every employee of every shop know how to prevent fire hazards and what to do in an emergency? Are accurate blueprints available on short notice? Are emergency exits properly marked for the public? Are those exits kept unblocked? Are the shops or services likely to be crowded with children located close to safe exits? When was the last time a fire drill tested the precautions?

When it comes to fire safety in public buildings, of which this region has many, unceasing vigilance is the only way to minimise risk.