After the awful tragedy that took place in Clondalkin, Dublin recently, in which a woman and three young children died, the issue of fire safety is quite understandably in the spotlight. While fires which cause such loss of life are rare, it is important to recognise the dangers and also discuss how the government can help to improve an inadequate situation.
Many causes of fires cannot be regulated – for example, arson attacks – but safety guidelines do exist and are circulated to deter avoidable accidents e.g. leaving smoking or lit materials unattended. For the purposes of this article, we will focus on electrical and other equipment and wiring, as these are causes of potentially lethal fires which could be avoidable if the right regulations were in place.
According to the Department of Housing, Planning, Community and Local Government, there were 41 fatalities as a result of fires in 2015. Of the 14,233 fires that were reported around the country that year, 875 of them (roughly 6%) were the result of the failure of electrical or other equipment, or faulty electrical wiring installations. This may not seem like a particularly significant number; however, given that 56% of these fires had an unknown cause, we can safely assume that electrical faults represented a higher figure of the total cases.
So what is being done about it? In the United Kingdom, for example, periodic inspections of properties result in the issuing of an Electrical Installation Condition Report detailing any damage or issues that may compromise safety in a property. If a landlord in the UK owns a house in multiple occupation, they have a legal obligation to have a periodic inspection carried out every five years. Failure to do so, or indeed to have experienced a fire that could have been avoided with a periodic inspection in any other property, will result in prosecution.
None of these words suggests any kind of urgency or compulsion to obtain this report and carry out any recommended upgrades.
Contrast that situation with the one in Ireland. Here, a periodic inspection report may be required by an insurance company or fire officer to give a current indication of the status of the property. It is good practice to have completed this report. This report contains a list of recommended actions should a property need them. The suggested period of inspection in a rented property is every five years. Now, consider the language that we see here. “May be required”; “good practice”; “recommended”; “suggested”. None of these words suggests any kind of urgency or compulsion to obtain this report and carry out any recommended upgrades.
Also, note that this Irish inspection report does not include alarm systems, burglar alarms, emergency lights and appliances, or indeed any upgrades or installations unless they are deemed an immediate threat to life or the property.
Here, a homeowner receives certification from an electrician after the house has been built. After that… nothing. There is no re-certification process or compulsory inspections despite suggested safety guidelines being in place. Meanwhile countless fires are occurring due to faulty electrical equipment and wiring. It is entirely feasible – and very worrying to consider – that thousands of houses in Ireland have electrical equipment and wiring that haven’t been checked by a certified professional in decades.
It is entirely feasible – and very worrying to consider – that thousands of houses in Ireland have electrical equipment and wiring that haven’t been checked by a certified professional in decades.
It is clear what needs to be done. We need the government to introduce a re-certification process for electrical equipment and wiring for residential properties around the country, as well as regulation of this sector so that lives can be saved in future. Not to do so is to neglect one of the main causes of house fires in this country and to put further lives at risk.