4see’s Leigh Hayman looks at the deadly 2018 Russian shopping mall fire and identifies issues for the GCC
On 25 March, 2018 a fire broke out in a Russian shopping mall. It is thought to have started in the trampoline room on the fourth floor, but even now the exact details about the cause of the fire are unknown. Tragically, 64 people are thought to have lost their lives in the blaze. 41 were children, writes Leigh Hayman, managing director of 4see.
The way the fire started, however, is not the cause for concern or action. It is more important to look at why a fire in a localised, relatively small area resulted in such a massive tragedy unfolding. The reason for the extensive and tragic loss of life was the failure of the very systems put in place to prevent injuries and fatalities in the event of such an emergency.
Among the reports and eyewitness accounts, it is quite clear that there was a catastrophic failure of the emergency control systems in place. This includes the physical systems as well as the competence and training of those meant to react and deal with such emergencies.
On further investigation, it was found that failures included:
- Fire alarms being deactivated due to numerous false alarms
- Fire exits being blocked and/or locked
- Fire extinguishers that did not work properly or were empty
- Emergency lighting systems that did not work or function properly
- A public address system to inform people of the need to evacuate being switched off
- No pre-practised or organised evacuation plan or procedure
- No one trained in the evacuation requirements or to act as an incident controller
The shopping mall owner had appointed a service provider to undertake the management of the centre and ensure that these systems were in place. This is fairly common practice in the GCC and around the world.
The remit of the service provider is to ensure that all life systems are fully maintained, operational and tested. It often has a role in the event of an emergency, as either the incident controller or part of the emergency response team.
Service providers have their own internal systems for ensuring these systems, both physical and management, are in place, which include inspections and checks by the safety officer or similar. Less common, however, is having a frequent owner-led check or audit of the service provider systems, in relation to health, safety and life codes.
As with any part of business management, a regular audit or check is essential to ensure that the services provided are meeting expectations. Health and safety vetting of all suppliers before appointment is, of course, common and almost standard across the region. Furthermore, contractual requirements relating to health, safety, well-being and life systems are often very clear and robust.
In day-to-day operations, however, lapses often do occur and continue to proliferate if not kept in check. Common issues are fire alarms being switched off if there have been multiple false alarms, emergency exit doors locked to increase security, sporadic checks of fire extinguishers and poor training due to high turnover of staff. Simply put, if a fire has never broken out, the mindset of ‘it won’t happen here’ grows.
A detailed, regular and unannounced (if possible) audit, instructed by the owner or management agent and undertaken by an experienced and competent audit team, could highlight significant issues or gaps. This would then require action by the service provider and could result in process changes as a result of poor performance.
Our general recommendation is to have properties audited at least annually. Similar to a financial or cyber security audit, the aim is to provide assurance that the providers are doing the job correctly, and that this type of incident is unlikely to occur at an owner’s premises. The importance of having regular audits undertaken by competent companies is highlighted by the Russian case.
Apart from the tragic loss of life, there is the related impact on brand and reputation of the company, city and country. Furthermore, the cost of such an incident cannot be underestimated, with physical repair costs being added to claims, loss of ongoing revenue, insurance costs, etc.
What about the GCC?
From experience, shopping malls and other commercial properties in the GCC are generally well managed in relation to safety systems. That said, simple issues are all too often found by our specialist teams, and these could have devastating effects in the event of a major emergency.
Every single item found in the investigation of the Russian mall incident has been found by our team in properties, including shopping centres, within the GCC. Although these are often minor issues in themselves, left unchecked, the likelihood is that they are ignored until they become the operational norm. The next minor issue is then added to the poor practice, and before long, the severe lapses found in the Russian mall are embedded in the day-to-day operations of a property.
Implementing regular auditing and checking is an essential part of property ownership, as well as brand and reputational security.