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That so-called high-rise ban

Is there really a ban on high-rise buildings in Cebu City?

Consider the statement of Mayor Tomas Osmeña as reported by the press: "I'm thinking of putting a ban on the new construction of high-rise buildings until we can reasonably assure that there would be safety standards."

So the mayor may have uttered the word "ban" but there was a qualifier: "Until we can reasonably assure that there would be safety standards."

My understanding is that the city government is freezing the processing of permits for the construction of new high-rise buildings until regulators are satisfied that the would-be occupants of said building will have better chances of surviving an earthquake or fire.

The clarification is in order because, as it is happening now, some quarters are already pouncing on the so-called "ban," with some opposition councilors calling it "anti-development" as if we are saying goodbye to new high-rise buildings.

Based on my understanding, the city government merely wants to re-evaluate present standards and ensure that new and ongoing building projects comply with the strictest safety standards laid down globally in detailed manuals. The event that triggered this call for a more careful review is the Metro Ayala fire that happened last week, though Metro Ayala was not even high-rise by any standard.

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Also, city regulators never said that the so-called ban on the construction of tall buildings is dependent on the firefighting capabilities of the Bureau of Fire Protection. That is because no fire department in the world is surely capable of controlling a fire at the highest floor of a skyscraper. Helicopter buckets may not even be effective.

The most firefighters could do is to contain the damage and prevent its spread to nearby buildings. That's why interior fire hydrant and sprinkler systems are crucial features in every building because they can arrest the spread of fire in its early stages. No amount of state-of-the-art equipment like breathing apparatus and insulated clothing can work when the heat inside a building has already reached intolerable levels or when the building structure has already been compromised. For building occupants, the best way to survive is to quickly escape the blaze.

But now many people are worried, and rightly so. If I were, for example, looking to buy a condominium unit right now, I would choose a unit not higher than the fifth floor. That is because I don't trust our current policies and regulatory culture when it comes to ensuring the evacuation of building occupants in the event a disaster strikes.

Just because a building looks neat and modern doesn't mean it is modern. Just because it looks aesthetically pleasing doesn't mean it is well-designed. Buildings could become death-traps when disaster strikes.

Even with current regulations, questions linger. If I were located on the 35th floor of a building, how do I escape a fire emanating from the 10th floor of the building? Remember, it's not really the flames that kill or hurt a person, it's the smoke. It may take time for the flames to reach the upper floors but the smoke can penetrate every corner of the building fast.

Are there adequate exits like staircases? Are they redundant such that if one is affected, another one can be used? Can they be isolated from the fire and smoke with natural or artificial ventilation systems? Are there adequate emergency exit signs? In the most likely event of a power-out, are there emergency lights for an orderly and quick evacuation?

These and other questions are what our regulators must now reconsider in the light of the city's building boom and the recent department store fire.

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