x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 23 January 2018

Inspectors tear down danger tents

The blaze at a wedding in Jahra that killed at least 45 people prompts the fire department to embark on a thorough check on structures erected illegally on government land.

On Monday, inspectors ordered the evacuation of a charity bazaar tent at the Kuwait Society of Engineers due to several violations.
On Monday, inspectors ordered the evacuation of a charity bazaar tent at the Kuwait Society of Engineers due to several violations.

KUWAIT CITY // Kuwait's government has torn down around 100 Ramadan tents and closed others after they failed spot checks from fire officials in the wake of the recent wedding tent fire that killed 45 women and children. The checks on dangerous and illegal tents are being conducted by the fire department and the council of ministers' Security Decision Follow-up Committee (SDFC), which has been in charge of removing thousands of structures built illegally on government land, known as encroachments, over the past three years.

"I believe the main reason for what happened in Jahra was the feeling of the Kuwaiti people that it is OK to break the law. Whoever put up that tent was breaking the law," the co-ordinator of the SDFC, Saud al Khatrash, said. The fire engulfed a wedding tent pitched in a residential area in Jahra on August 15 with lightning speed, leaving 38 charred bodies of women and children in a pile near the tent's only exit. Several more have since died from their injuries. One unnamed person, who the local press say is the groom's first wife, has been arrested in connection with the blaze.

Over the past three years, the SDFC and the country's six governorates have demolished as many as 100,000 encroachments such as gardens, rooms for helpers and diwaniyahs - rooms where Kuwaitis entertain their guests. The mission has largely dealt with a festering problem, caused by Kuwaitis taking advantage of the state's lethargy in stopping them from treating government land as their own. Mr al Khatrash said the committee did not receive special orders to remove tents after the fire, but "the media started talking about tents again and brought it to our attention". He said all of the 100 tents torn down by the removal teams in the past three days had been erected by restaurants for Ramadan.

In the past, the removal teams gave offenders time to remove the structures themselves. "Now we just go and tear them down. They all know they're doing something wrong," he said. The fire department's campaign focuses on enforcing fire regulations in tents that have permits. Brig Gen Jassem al Mansouri, the fire department chief, said the rules have been in place since 1982, but they were not implemented well and as a result "some tents are out of control".

Last week, the fire department met with the municipality and the ministries of religious affairs and the interior to discuss safety in Ramadan tents. After the meeting, the municipality's director general, Ahmed al Sabeeh, warned of stricter regulations. The guidelines say tents must be made of flame-retardant material, emergency lights should show the way to an ample number of exits, electric wiring should be covered and fire extinguishers must be available.

"We've pushed the campaign through the media. We have to make the community know what can happen. I think the message is getting across," said Brig Gen al Mansouri. He said the fire department has not removed any tents yet, but they will not hesitate to do so. Since the meeting, an inspection team from the fire prevention department has made unannounced visits to tents in Kuwait City. They have already issued 14 warnings, requiring the owner to report to the fire department and address the points on the inspection team's report.

On Monday night they visited a market in a tent on the premises of the Kuwait Society of Engineers (KSE). The inspection led to the "first ever immediate closure of a tent in Kuwait", said the head of the team, Lt Col Ali bin Haider. As the team searched around stalls selling perfume, jewellery and clothes, they found wires plugged directly into the socket without a plug, one small expired fire extinguisher, no emergency signs, and bare lights dangerously close to the tent's flammable fabric. The team said the large tent should have four exits, but it only had two, and one led into another tent.

As the event's organisers tried to persuade the team not to shut them down, one tripped over a loose wire, causing an electric spark and a loud bang. The fate of the tent was perhaps sealed as the dismayed firemen checked to make sure the man had not been electrocuted. Bader Alakhawand, a volunteer for the charity that was to benefit from the stalls' profits, the Amel Club, said: "I've been here for a couple of hours and the electricity went off three times already. Some of the chandeliers are so close to the tent's fabric, that looks very dangerous to me.

"They should close it. I'm always for doing the right thing. What's the point if we get money for charity if someone gets hurt?" Mr Alakhawand said. The general manager of KSE, Saleh al Mutairi, said the tent has been there since 2007 and will stay until 2012. He said other inspectors have visited the tent before without a problem and that the electrical system had been approved by the ministry of electricity and water.

"Maybe the guys who rented the tent laid down some extra wires," he said. Mr al Mutairi said the closure was "fair, because they are following the rules". He said there is a new system and he will go to the fire department tomorrow to discuss it with them. Another officer on the inspection team, Mohammed al Rashid, warned that the fire brigade still has plenty of work to do before Kuwait reaches international standards of fire safety.

"There are lots of places like this; you should see Jahra." @Email:jcalderwood@thenational.ae