Report on parliament fire confirms systems failure

A report on the fire in the parliament precinct in Cape Town this week confirms that the sprinkler service at the legislature did not activate and was almost two years overdue for a service.

The report, filed by the senior fire officer and released by the City of Cape Town on Friday, also notes that the fire detection service appeared faulty and the alarm failed to activate until some time after fire fighters had arrived in the early hours of Sunday morning.

“No fire alarm was received by Cape Town Fire Service from the old or new national assembly buildings. An alarm was received after the fire fighters were already on scene from Tuynhuys adjacent to the assembly buildings,” said chief fire officer Ian Schnetler.

The detection system was badly damaged in the blaze and further investigation was needed to establish if it was operational at all.

The report notes that the sprinkler system needs to be serviced every two years, and that the sprinkler control valve set on the southern facade of the Old Assembly wing did not work. 

“Sprinklers did not activate. The sprinklers were last serviced last in 2017, with service scheduled for 2.2020,” it says. Moreover, it was not clear which parts of the building were fitted with sprinklers, given that “the required layout block plan at the valve set was illegible”.

A fire station commander concurred with this, adding that had the sprinkler system been properly serviced the valve should have been locked with a chain in an open position and “a block plan would have been available showing system layout”.

The lift safety trip did not operate, and the heat, ventilation and air conditioning system failed to shut down during the fire, forcing the City of Cape Town to isolate and cut power supply to the precinct.

The fire services said their work was hampered by extreme heat trapped in the burning building, meaning firefighters had to be relieved every quarter of an hour, and the report lists a number of factors that contributed to this.

“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,” the report states, adding that this meant some emergency exit staircases were filled with smoke.

“The ‘rabbit warren’ of locked office configurations off feeder passages negatively affected any ventilation occurring from inner spaces,” wrote the divisional fire commander at the scene, Wayne Visser.

He added that emergency staircases were poorly ventilated with “minimal natural vents encountered to the outside”. 

“Firefighters did not detect any mechanical venting of the staircases was observed.”

The report does not address the cause of the fire, noting that this would be determined in the official investigation into the blaze that laid waste to the national assembly, floors of offices above it, and the offices and gyms in the Old Assembly wing.

The investigation will also determine whether the fire alarm system was operational.

The report notes that as a national key point, parliament does not fall under the local government laws in Cape Town, and therefore the fire services did not have the power to enforce safety standards for the building and other national state-owned assets.

Cape Town mayor Geordin Hill-Lewis said the city was releasing the report for the sake of transparency.

“In the interests of transparency, and following great public interest, we release it publicly without any additional comment,” he tweeted.

Firefighters battled for more than 24 hours to bring the blaze under control, but it flared again on Monday afternoon, destroying the roof structure of the new wing in strong winds.

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