Parliament not compliant with fire regulations, September 2020 inspections found

14 January 2022 - 13:14
By Andisiwe Makinana
File image of the devastating fire at parliament earlier this month.
Image: Moloto Mothapo via Twitter File image of the devastating fire at parliament earlier this month.

At least 15 months before the devastating blaze which started on January 2, parliament buildings were not compliant with fire regulations, and the ventilation system design and fire protection in the parliamentary precinct needed to be reviewed by a fire consultant. 

This failure to adhere to policy exposed President Cyril Ramaphosa, among others, to potential harm, as shocking flaws were found at Tuynhuys, his Cape Town office. 

These are some of the findings of an independent review of parliament prestige construction projects by an external auditing company, BDO.

The building inspections were conducted in September 2020, but the 194-page report was kept under wraps until Friday morning.

During a site visit by auditors to the National Council of Provinces (NCOP) building and to Tuynhuys, which houses Ramaphosa and his deputy David Mabuza’s offices, they found the building was not fitted with an automatic sprinkler system.

The NCOP building’s sprinkler system had not been operational for some time.

“Although these buildings might already comply with the regulations as set out in the SA Bureau of Standards, it should be taken into consideration that the purpose of this code is to save lives, not buildings,” reads the report.

“As these buildings form part of the National Heritage and are National Key Points, and contain significant amounts of wood, it is concerning there seem to be no automated fire systems in place to protect them from destruction in case of fire.”

The auditors found the fire protection system in the NCOP building’s library appeared to be state-of-the-art, but said it was doubtful if this system would be able to protect the library if the building caught fire.

“If the rest of the building would catch fire, the roof where the system’s gas cylinders are stored would also catch fire, as the structure contains a significant amount of wood.”

They said the root causes of this was a lack of appropriate project management implementation strategy and policies, and that it could have led to inadequate fire protection for heritage buildings and potential loss of life and loss of heritage assets.

Initial reports from parliament were that the library was unaffected by the destructive blaze that destroyed the National Assembly building.

They recommended a suitably qualified and experienced fire engineer, together with suitably experienced personnel from the SA Heritage Resources Agency and representatives from the department of public works and infrastructure and the appropriate parliamentary stakeholders, be tasked with evaluating policy regarding the protection of the buildings against fire and review possible options and make recommendations regarding automated fire protection of the buildings.

A site visit to the sixth floor of 90 Plein Street, a building that houses most of parliament’s administrative staff, and where the entire sixth floor had been refurbished by the department of public works and infrastructure, revealed there were no fire stops or dampers between the floor and service shafts.

“Although the building is protected with sprinklers, it did not appear the ventilation shafts dampers are in working condition. The project manager could not confirm if the installation was signed off by the fire department,” reads the report.

The effect of this is that a fire could spread through the service shafts between floors, which could lead to injuries and fatalities.

Good practice would be to have fire stops between floors and a review by a fire consultant to ensure compliance to the latest regulations and best practice.

Auditors found that the project manager did not understand the implications of poor installation of fire protection systems.

According to the report, parliament management accepted the finding and stated a new project manager was going to contact engineers to rectify it.

Auditors recommended that penalties related to the contractor and facilities management  be considered once other buildings had been inspected.

On the sixth floor of the Plein Street building, which was not occupied at the time of the inspection, the fire equipment servicing was out of date (the service should have been conducted in June 2020) and fire exit doors were unsafe, as there were no signs to indicate how to open the door fitted with a magnetic lock.

The remainder of the emergency escape push-bar lock also contributed to the confusion as it was broken at the time of the inspection.

The auditors pointed to poor project management by the department of public works and infrastructure during the finalisation stages of the project, saying it was not appropriately closed out.

Adequate close-out procedures would have ensured the fire door would have been repaired, as practical completion was in August 2019.