Andy Souten is the International Sales Manager, Fire Systems at Eaton, a global power management company. In this interview with MAUREEN IHUA-MADUENYI, he says homeowners should begin to pay more attention to electrical installations in their buildings
What has been your impression of safety procedures in Nigeria?
My exposure to Nigeria is a bit limited, but from the Eaton’s roundtable held recently, which had a lot of people from the government and the safety industry, I noticed the passion for safety issues. But it is safe to say that there is a hunger for knowledge among Nigerians; there is also a kind of frustration about the ways some things are done. I might be wrong but it seems there is real desire to do things the right way by the government officials, but the laws and regulations don’t seem to be in place or better ways of enforcing them even if they were in place.
In the United Kingdom for instance, there are laws, regulations and standards for the design, product selection, installation and so on of electrical products and these are all very specific standards that are in place and measured at every single point.
I don’t know if this is in place in Nigeria; I know there is a building code but I don’t know if there is anything specific forcing developers, owners of existing properties or aspiring builders to comply with the standards for any of these products or the selection of them. Across Europe and the US, there are standards for every single products and their use. Switch boxes, UPS and all are manufactured with specific manufacturing approval codes. There are many products in the market, some coming from low-cost manufacturing countries that do not carry these approvals, so, it is really important to have standards on selecting these products and installing them.
What will you advise the government to do to ensure enforcement of these standards you talked about?
If you look at best practices, I will use the UK as an example; there is a building code. If there is a new building to be built, the consultants and architects involved in designing that building, before even starting the foundation, they present the electrical system and selection of products.
So, there is a whole process that is followed, a conceptual style before the building construction commences, these things must be in place. Even when the building is completed, it cannot be opened without a fire certificate, so the building’s electrical installation system has to be tested to ensure that everything is working and if it is proved to be working, the certificate will be issued.
Now, quite often, the fire detection system is one the last installations, because often architects and developers leave it to the last minute because they don’t really want to spend money on safety; they want to spend it on aesthetics, the kitchen, the bathrooms and the reception areas.
But safety is important, so they are forced to put these things into the building; in the UK you have to carry out weekly tests on your fire alarm system to ensure it works. It is also required that within a six-month period, 50 per cent of all the products in the building are tested. So, you are not just testing the fire alarm, you are testing everything. The idea behind that is that you will test every part of the building and the products used to ensure that they really work.
In Nigeria, I am not seeing the legislation or the regulation or the standards to enforce all of that process, and it needs to be in place.
What are the minimum standards every building should have in terms of electrical installations and safety system?
Different countries have their own requirements but I will use the UK as an example. In the UK, residential dwellings such as homes for four, five or six people have no requirement for fire detection on buildings, the best practice is to install stand-alone detectors. In existing buildings, most homeowners or renters will install detectors that are not so expensive but work effectively but when you start looking at commercial buildings and residential tower buildings, there are completely different rules all together.
Commercial buildings often have good safety system installed to protect the investment rather than the occupants, unfortunately. But the standard of protection is normally derived from carrying out a fire risk assessment. In the UK, the onus is on the occupier of the building or the owner to carry out regular safety audit of the building so they will do a fire risk assessment.
Once the fire risk assessment is carried out, the level of protection required will be determined and often it could be done by a safety company. Many of these companies will give discount if there is a fire safety system in place and a certain level of protection; so, there are financial benefits and there are ethical reasons for doing that too.
Once the level of safety required is determined, then a consultant will do a design and a manufacturer will help with the product selection and then install products.
For residential buildings, the onus of protecting the building is always on the owner. The minimum requirement is that all stairways or corridors should always have fire detectors in them. Best practice means you then normally put fire detection in each flat which is great but can also be problematic because if you put detectors where people do a lot of cooking and there is smoke, it can give off false alarm.
So, when you are considering the design of a fire alarm system, you have to put this into consideration; otherwise, anytime someone cooks and there is smoke, everyone in the building will need to be evacuated. So, these are some of the things we can do to prevent fire. As responsible manufacturers, there are things we can do to reduce these risks but this is also driven by risk assessments.
A lot of people believe that safety is expensive and that they need expensive products to put it in place. What’s your take on this?
At Eaton, we don’t believe that cost is a factor when it comes to safety. I mean what value can you place on human life? No amount of money will compensate any one for the loss of a family member. We shouldn’t be talking about the cost of safety but about the cost of not doing it. If your building has a fire and your properties are destroyed, what is the cost of getting your building back, what is the cost of rebuilding it?
Recently in the UK, there was a terrible fire in a residential building tower, I can’t remember the exact number, but more than 70 people were killed and the building did have a fire detection system; so, there was an alarm.
Yes, we don’t have infinite funds to spend on any building, but this should be in the budget always. In many tall buildings in Dubai, they install fire detection system but they also install fire suppression system so that in the event of a fire, the sprinkling system will extinguish it. In the Middle East, every single building must have a fire detection system even if it is residential and every one of them is linked to the local authority where they monitor the system and as soon as there is an incident, the fire brigade is dispatched.
So, I don’t think cost is something we should talk about in terms of safety of buildings and humans who live in them.
You have said a lot about fire detectors, are there no products to prevent the fire from occurring at all?
There are products. This is not something Eaton gets involved with but there are fire-retardant products, many of them, there are furniture and others that are resistant to fire. There are a lot of things that can be done outside installing a fire detector.
As a safety professional, what would you say to locals who may not have a fire detector in their homes and experience a sudden fire outbreak?
There are some new innovative products by Eaton. In the event of a fire in a tall building for instance, the occupants are evacuated or run towards a fire exit. We recently launched a product on that because sometimes some people can run towards the fire, so we have new fire direction or sign system to direct people away from the fire rather than towards it.
There are also very low-cost fire detectors that are very reliable that people can use.
What are your plans towards local production in Nigeria?
We are always open to investing locally. We have a sizable market and employees in Africa, when the market dynamics are right, it is something we will look at. I will look at Nigeria as an emerging market and the potential is enormous but beyond product offering, we aim to educate people on the right products installation and use.