Report reveals slip-ups and faulty equipment fuelled fire in parliament

07 January 2022 - 11:34
Some of the damage caused by fire to the parliamentary buildings.
Some of the damage caused by fire to the parliamentary buildings.
Image: Supplied

An incident report based on observations by fire safety officers paints a disturbing picture of slip-ups and equipment failure during the blaze that gutted parts of the parliamentary precinct in Cape Town this week.  

Sprinklers which did not activate when the fire broke out on Sunday were last serviced in 2017. The first aid equipment was outdated and emergency staircases were poorly ventilated. The fire alarm only went off when firefighters were already on the scene.

The report titled “Fire at Parliamentary Complex” and dated January 4 is based on observations made during the blaze by firefighters. The disclaimer reads: “Please note this is not an official report on the incident. It is for information purposes and provides the observations of city fire safety officers who worked on the scene.”

The 22-page report features observations by divisional commander Wayne Visser, who did a “brief check of fire suppression equipment and related fire safety matters at the Old  Assembly parliament building site”.  

“The external fire hydrants were well marked and maintained, adequate access provided,” reported Visser.

Some of parliament's fire suppression equipment appeared not to have been serviced.
Some of parliament's fire suppression equipment appeared not to have been serviced.
Image: Supplied

“The sprinkler control valve set on the southern façade of the Old Assembly building had not activated. Sprinklers did not activate. The sprinklers were last serviced in 2017, with service scheduled for February 2020.”

Visser said it was unclear which part of the building was fitted with sprinklers.

“The required layout block plan at the valve set was illegible,” said Visser.

“General first aid fire suppression equipment [fire hose reels and extinguishers] were in-dated for service (11/2021), internal fire hydrants were operational with acceptable flow. Fire detection alarm was present, yet uncertain of extent of system as extensive damage had occurred. General fire information was well presented, though some non-SABS signs were found.”

Visser found latches had been used to keep fire doors open.

“A major contributing factor to the excessive heat and smoke encountered throughout the building was the open-latching of fire doors onto the fire escape staircases using small metal latches,” Visser found.

“The ‘rabbit warren’ of locked office configurations off feeder passages negatively affected any ventilation occurring from inner spaces.

Latches kept parliament fire doors open, which contributed to excessive heat and smoke in the burning buildings.
Latches kept parliament fire doors open, which contributed to excessive heat and smoke in the burning buildings.
Image: Supplied

“The emergency staircases were poorly ventilated with minimal natural events encountered to the outside. No mechanical venting of the staircases was observed.

“Wall panelling and décor materials presented additional fire loading throughout the building.”

Station commander JJ Williams agreed with Visser.

“During my walk around the affected areas, I found the National Assembly sprinkler valve was not serviced (service date was 2/2017 and this needs to be done every three years) and the valve appeared closed,” said Williams.

“If properly serviced, this valve should have been locked with a chain in an open position and a block plan would have been available showing system layout. Lifts continued to operate despite a ‘break glass’ unit at one lift being activated. Fire doors were locked in an open position using latches. Roof smoke vents did activate in the National Assembly.”

According to the report, “no fire alarm was received by Cape Town fire services from the old and new National Assembly buildings.

“An alarm was received after the firefighters were already on the scene from Tuynhuys, adjacent to the assembly buildings.

“HVAC [heating, ventilation, and air conditioning] system failed to shut down, forcing city to isolate electricity block. Lift safety trip did not operate. Some emergency staircases were overcome by smoke due to latching open of fire doors.”

The report noted that in terms of the National Building Regulations and Building Standards Act, subsection 4 only required the state to lodge plans to a local authority for its information and comment and “it does not require approval nor does it require final inspection and sign off”.

“Parliament is a national key point, which further restricts the involvement of the city in the enforcement of fire regulations. This has the consequence of exempting the national state from these laws and preventing the fire department from compelling compliance with fire safety standards for parliament and other national state-owned assets.”

Attached to the report were copies of previous courtesy inspections conducted at the time of the state of the nation address for the past three years.

Cape Town mayor Geordin Hill-Lewis said the report was sent to the speaker of parliament.

On Friday afternoon, the public works department said a team of experts has recommended the New Assembly building should be closed with immediate effect as it is “unsafe”.

“The department has activated appropriate steps for the procurement of an independent specialist engineering team to conduct further detailed assessments and testing of material strength. National Treasury has agreed to expedite the process to procure the independent specialist engineering team as expeditiously as possible.”

The department said the preliminary visual assessment report and photos had been handed over to the Hawks.



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