Fire Dept official: Onus on local councils to ensure tahfiz schools meet safety standards

Rescue workers at the religious school Darul Quran Ittifaqiyah after a fire broke out in Kuala Lumpur September 14, 2017. — Reuters pic
Rescue workers at the religious school Darul Quran Ittifaqiyah after a fire broke out in Kuala Lumpur September 14, 2017. — Reuters pic

KUALA LUMPUR, Sept 16 ― Local councils are ultimately responsible to ensure operators of private religious schools, such as tahfiz schools, to comply with safety requirements, a Fire and Rescue Department official has explained.

The department's senior enforcement officer Shamsol Maaris said the authority to approve any applications to use buildings for other than its intended purposes lies with local councils.

This responsibility includes ensuring building owners comply with fire safety requirements and calling the relevant bodies to hold inspections before issuing a permit.

“In the case of tahfiz schools, often the case the schools are operated in a building that was initially a house but later converted to become the school,” he told Malay Mail Online over a phone interview.

“Any plan to convert the house, or any building for that matter, must have the approval of the local councils. Only if the buildings have met with fire and safety standards, which is when we come in for inspection, can they be approved for operation,” he added.

While the fire department may have the power to conduct inspections autonomously and punish those that fail to meet regulations under the Uniformed Building By Law 1984, checks would only be done if there was a need for it, he said.

“It's like this: Before developers can build houses they will have to seek approval from the local councils. The local councils will then tell us to inspect and if all is well, we give our approval and the houses can be built,” he explained.

“From thereon the fire department has pretty much done its job because we've already run the necessary checks.

“So if suddenly a house within that particular plan is converted into a tahfiz school, it would have to be screened by the local councils first and during the application process, we will come in and conduct a new inspection,” he added.

Shamsol revealed that the fire department seldom gets calls from local councils to inspect privately-operated religious schools, even as they continue to mushroom across the country.

The pre-dawn blaze killed 21 children and two of their teachers at the Darul Quran Ittifaqiyah tahfiz school in Kampung Datuk Keramat here on Thursday, believed to be the deadliest since the 1989 fire where 27 female students of a Kedah tahfiz school were killed in their sleep.

There has been 211 fire cases involving tahfiz schools in the past two years.

The three-storey school was initially a double-storey terrace house. Fire and Rescue Department deputy director-general of operations Datuk Soiman Jahid was quoted saying the school had went ahead with operations even without obtaining a fire permit first.

When asked if his men could have stopped the school from operating since it had no permit, Shamsol said only local councils had that authority. The fire department, on the other hand, could only issue a compound.

“If we found lapses in the fire safety measures of a building we will first issue a notice. In the notice we will tell them what must be done and we return after two weeks to inspect. If they still fail to comply then we can issue a compound and take them to court,” he said.

The maximum penalty for non-compliance is a fine of not more than RM5,000 the official said. Shamsol did not state if the Darul Quran Ittifaqiyah tahfiz school had been fined before.

The school, located in Kampung Datuk Keramat, falls within the Kuala Lumpur City Hall's jurisdiction.

The City Hall could not be reached for comments at the time of writing.

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