By Property Soul (guest contributor)

Recently I got a shocking message from my sister: A strong fire broke out in our hometown in the estate where my mother stays.It was built around 15 years ago – a five-block residential development and each block comes with 21 storeys. It is also a mixed development with one of the blocks housing a wet/dry market and a food court on the lowest three storeys.

The cause and consequences of the fire

The blaze first started in a dry product store in the wee hours of the morning at around three a.m. (the police are still investigating whether it was arson or an accident). The fire quickly spread to all the other stores.

The whole estate was soon surrounded by dense smoke. Amid the sound of a few explosions, 140 firefighters spent seven hours to put out the fire. Close to 700 residents were evacuated and eight people were admitted to the hospital to treat for smoke inhalation.

My mother saw the block on fire just next to hers. She was being evacuated to an open space where she waited with others for many hours – with no wallet, no phone and nothing – until they were finally allowed to go home by climbing up the stairs (no one was allowed to use the lift).

The dangers of staying in a mixed-use development

The incident reminds me of the concerns about staying in a mixed-use development. Similar to my mother, people choose to stay in a mixed commercial and residential project for the daily convenience it provides. However, the residents also have to compromise in terms of tranquility, security and safety.

According to the Urban Development Authority, mixed commercial and residential buildings in Singapore can use up to 40 percent of its total gross floor area for commercial activities. A common design can be an apartment block built on top of a shopping mall. Some residential developments may only have shops or shophouses on the ground floor.

However, the main activities, human traffic, security concerns, fire regulations, etc. are very different between residential and commercial premises. Most people are not aware of the implications behind or the hidden dangers until accidents happen.

In the case of this terrible fire, the market was originally built for the convenience of residents in the estate. With affordable rent, goods in the market can be sold at lower prices. It soon became the most popular wet market in the city famous for its cheapest, freshest and biggest variety for shoppers. Although the estate was not near to any train station, people from different corners of the city still flock there to buy food and ingredients.

In order to keep stock overnight, many stores were locked up with iron gates after closing for security reasons. And it was the stock and the gates that accelerated the spread of fire in the market. Firefighters had to blow them open one by one to put out the fire.

Residents at the blocks also complained that they couldn’t hear the fire alarm at all. The sound of the alarm was so weak that some residents thought it was just another lift malfunction. The management office explained that the fire alarm of the market was separate from the ones at the residential blocks. Fire alarms at the latter was not triggered by the fire in the market.

Mature estates also have a high concentration of the elderly

Another potential risk comes from the high concentration of elderly in mature estates.

The estate on fire was situated in an old district with predominantly senior residents. During the fire evacuation, the firefighters found many residents unable to escape on their own due to old age or immobility. The firefighters spent a lot of time and effort carrying the elderly to safety.

The passers-by asked my mother whether it was the home for the aged that caught fire. Even she herself was unaware that there were so many elderly folks staying in the blocks. She could imagine that many seldom leave home on normal days.

Like my mother, the elderly prefer to stay in an old district where they are close to old friends and everything they are familiar with. Even when they move to new homes, they still choose to stay in the same area. With an aging population, the concentration of old folks in mature districts can only increase over time.

In Singapore, according to the Census of Population 2010, the top five planning areas with the highest number of elderly are Bedok, Bukit Merah, Ang Mo Kio, Hougang and Toa Payoh.

HDB’s building of 30-year-lease studio apartments are meant to cater to the housing needs of the aging population. Although singles can also apply for the studios, it is obvious that they are more popular among the seniors, especially when the interior of the studios is designed for the needs of the elderly.

With the concentration of old people in studio apartments and mature estates, is there anything that can be done in planning to avoid the damage caused by fire or an act of God?

By Property Soul, a successful property investor and enthusiast who shares her experiences and knowledge on her blog.

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