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A week after an arson attack at a building in Osaka left 25 people dead, an expert is calling for legislation to improve safety in commercial buildings that have only one emergency staircase.

The Dec. 17 arson at a mental health clinic on the fourth floor of the small multi-tenant building in the city’s Kita Ward engulfed its only emergency staircase, leaving no escape route for the victims.

The first to sixth floors of the building, completed in 1970, have a floor space of about 93 square meters each. The only exits from the higher floors are the one elevator on the front side of the building and the emergency staircase.

“There are windows on the front side of the building that could have been used to escape, but it would have been difficult (for the victims) to actually use them as the fire was lit near the area,” said Takehiko Yamamura, head of a Tokyo-based research institute on disaster prevention.

“Even if there had been other windows, they would likely not have been used to escape” due to the concentration of buildings in the area, he said.

According to the government’s Fire and Disaster Management Agency, there are believed to be around 30,000 commercial buildings that are three stories or higher with only one emergency staircase in Japan.

Through the 1974 revision of the order to implement the building standards law, the installation of two or more emergency staircases became mandatory for buildings with six or more stories. But the building in Osaka was exempted from the requirement as it was built before the rule change.

The Osaka fire department did not find any deficiencies in the building in past regular inspections. | REUTERS
The Osaka fire department did not find any deficiencies in the building in past regular inspections. | REUTERS

The building was also not required to install smoke exhaust infrastructure. In addition, it was not covered by a fire service law provision requiring buildings with a total floor space of 3,000 square meters or more to set up sprinkler systems.

The Osaka fire department did not find any deficiencies in the building in past regular inspections.

Yamamura pointed out that fire prevention measures in the current building standards law and the fire services law are “made on the assumption that fires are started by mistake.”

“There needs to be legislation that takes into consideration fires caused by arson,” he said. “Even in buildings that have only one escape route, there should be simple sprinkler systems.”

The Fire and Disaster Management Agency has instructed fire departments nationwide to conduct emergency inspections of buildings following the deadly arson. The agency plans to consider prevention measures with the infrastructure ministry.

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