All fired up
And so the finger-pointing begins.
A month after the deadly fire at the Kentex slipper factory in Valenzuela snuffed out 72 lives, President Aquino directed the Bureau of Fire Protection (BFP) to inspect more than 300,000 factories in Metro Manila, after learning that 23 other factories in the city are in violation of fire safety regulations.
Mr. Aquino also directed the Department of Justice to complete its probe and file criminal and administrative charges against those found to be remiss in their duties, including local officials who issued business permits to Kentex despite its noncompliance with fire safety standards, a violation of Republic Act No. 9154 or the Revised Fire Code of the Philippines.
But Valenzuela Mayor Rexlon Gatchalian has shifted the blame on the BFP. If local officials waited for the BFP to inspect all business establishments in the city before issuing them permits to operate, “what will happen to the local economy?” he said, adding: “And how many jobs are we talking about?”
The mayor said the issuance of provisional business permits pending the grant of a fire safety inspection certificate (FSIC) was based on a memorandum circular issued by the Department of the Interior and Local Government, meant to streamline business operations.
According to that DILG directive, the BFP should file a written report to City Hall listing the companies falling short of compliance with fire safety requirements so that their provisional business permits could be revoked, Gatchalian said. But where were the BFP’s written reports? he asked.
What he conveniently forgot to mention was that, despite the BFP’s negligence—apparent since some 300,000 factories in Metro Manila alone need to be inspected—the fact remains that issuing business permits is a responsibility that rests solidly on local government.
If companies cannot present the required FSIC because the BFP was a slacker, why give them permits to operate at all? Why not withhold the permits pending their compliance with fire safety requirements? The prospect of losing business over such delay could, at the very least, compel factory owners to prod, follow up and pressure the BFP to buckle down to its sworn duty.
The Kentex case is particularly telling of how the local government had looked the other way despite the firm’s blatant violations of the fire safety code. Citing BFP findings, the President said the slipper factory had no automatic fire sprinklers, fire detection and alarm systems, and protected fire escape.
Gatchalian was being disingenuous when he said that Kentex was given a provisional permit last January, subject to revocation should the BFP issue an adverse report upon inspection—which it never did until the factory burned down on May 13. But then again, emergency exits, sprinkler and alarm systems, and fire escapes are major investments that cannot just be dismantled once installed. Does this mean that Kentex, which managed to secure an FSIC only in 2012 and, to take the mayor’s word for it, in 2015, had been operating since 1996 without the necessary fire safety requirements?
The BFP is culpable as well, as it boggles the mind how 300,000 factories in Metro Manila have remained virtual firetraps all along. This huge backlog begs the question: What has taken the BFP so long to do its job? Doesn’t it usually take months, even years, for factories to be set up, time enough for the BFP to conduct preliminary inspections, starting with the building’s blueprint to check for fire escapes and emergency exits? The ocular could always follow later.
In politics and in disasters, Filipinos have a notoriously short memory. Kentex is just the latest incident of criminal neglect that, hopefully, would reap concrete government action this time. We have to ask: How can people so easily forget the Ozone disco fire in 1996, when fire safety violations similarly cost 162 young lives? And at year’s end, how often do we brace for news of yet another illegal fireworks factory blowing up?
The Kentex fire and the case of 300,000 disasters waiting to happen in similarly situated sweatshops have moved politicians to trumpet grand plans to address this life-and-death issue. But let’s not forget: No amount of politicking and finger-pointing can bring back 72 lives. And only the firm resolve to hold people accountable to their publicly sworn responsibilities will save other endangered lives.
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