Lax fire regulations cost lives

A fire that broke out at an orthopedic clinic in Fukuoka City on Oct. 11 and claimed 10 lives should serve as a warning that similar tragedies could easily strike other medical and nursing care facilities across the country. The central and local governments must strengthen regulations governing fire-prevention equipment at such facilities.

The blaze started around 2:20 a.m. in the four-story clinic, about 1 km southwest of JR Hakata station, and killed eight inpatients aged 70 to 89 as well as the 80-year-old former director of the clinic and his 72-year-old wife. It is believed that they died of carbon monoxide poisoning due to smoke inhalation.

While in the past the clinic had informed the Hakata Fire Department that three staff members would be on night duty, on the night of the fire only one nurse was working.

According to fire department officials, little effort was made by hospital staff to put out the fire in its early stages, and the fire department was not notified of the fire until the building was ablaze. Fire doors remained open, allowing smoke to spread through the building. The facility also lacked sprinklers.

It is suspected that the fire was caused by a heating device. Smoke spread to the second floor, where inpatients resided, and to the third floor, which housed the former director and his wife.

All seven automatic fire shutters installed in the clinic — three on the first floor, two on the second floor, and one each on the third and fourth floor — failed to close automatically as they should have. A thorough investigation must determine why.

A company in charge of checking fire-prevention equipment said that it had not checked fire shutters in the clinic for more than 20 years because inspections of fire shutters are not called for by the Fire Services Law.

And, like many municipal governments, the Fukuoka City Government did not require clinics with fewer than 20 beds to periodically inspect their fire shutters. The national law must be revised, as should the policies of municipal governments, to make such inspections mandatory.

The lack of sprinklers in the clinic also likely contributed to the tragedy. Currently sprinklers must be installed in nursing care facilities for the elderly if total floor space is 275 sq. meters or more. But in the case of hospitals with 20 or more beds, they must be installed if floor space totals 3,000 sq. meters or more.

The regulations should be changed so that all clinics with in-patient facilities are required to install sprinklers. As the installation of sprinkler systems is costly, the central and local governments should consider providing subsidies.