There is a lot of talk about whether the Philippines is a safe country for expats. The talk is usually centered around kidnappings or terrorist attacks. But there are more immediate concerns.
On December 23, with the sound of cash registers ringing and Christmas carols in the air, the NCCC Mall in Davao City caught fire.
The ensuing blaze took the lives of 37 data research company employees trapped on the fourth floor and one mall employee stationed on the third floor.
On March 5th, the agency charged with determining the cause of the fire, the Interagency Anti-Arson Task Force (IATF), released their findings.
The IATF’s findings are horrifying to me. My background is in building engineering and maintenance. None of the conditions that existed in the mall would have been allowed to exist at any of the properties my former company maintained.
No customers died in the fire. But with the conditions that existed on the floors affected, that may just blind luck.
The NCCC Mall fire stands as a stark reminder that things are different here.
A lot of expats enjoy what seems to us to be the “free-wheeling” attitudes here in the Philippines. We laugh at the sight of seven people on a motorcycle here, something that would have us ticketed or even arrested for in our former countries.
I hear expats all the time say that they like the Philippines because there are so few of “those damn rules and regulations” here compared to “back home”. “You can do what you want here,” they say.
Then a terrible tragedy strikes. A bus plunges from an overpass, a ferry sinks, a mall burns down. Those same expats shake their heads and say, “They don’t enforce any safety rules here.”
Necessity Is The Mother Of Tragedy
Many of the tragedies that happen here happen because necessity wins out over safety.
The little kids we see every day, sandwiched between Mamang and Papang on the motorcycle, aren’t there because the parents are careless, necessarily. They’re there because putting everyone on the bike is the only option the parents have.
Other things here are the result of those in authority cutting corners or not thinking through or even seeing problems. And I don’t mean government authorities. I mean those in authority who own or run businesses.
Just Two Examples
If you’ll notice, it’s padlocked shut. It’s hard to see, but the padlock has a number on it which most likely corresponds to a key that someone, probably a guard, has.
Is the idea that if there’s a fire, the guard will go around the building, unlocking the fire doors?
Whoever owns this company or runs this branch decided that the best thing to do wasn’t to put one of those alarm levers on the fire doors. You know the kind. The levers say “Emergency Use Only. Alarm Will Sound If Door Is Opened”. The decision was that the best, cheapest thing to do was to padlock the safety doors and hope for the best.
This photo is from another big warehouse store we visit. If you’ll notice, there is nothing on these shelves to stop the stock from tumbling down in an earthquake. And the Philippines gets lots of earthquakes.
Again, the decision was made by someone in power that the cost of installing safety barriers on even the really high upper shelving wasn’t necessary. Hoping for the best has worked so far.
Your Safety Is Up To You
Pay attention. Evaluate your surroundings. Have a plan. Those are the cornerstones of something security experts call “Situational Awareness”.
None of us retired here to live on constant edge, I know. I’m not suggesting that. What we need to do as expats, is take responsibility for our own safety and simply pay attention.
The next time you’re at the market or at the mall, check the exits. What would you do if there was a fire? An earthquake? Flooding?
Get used to asking yourself those things. That won’t ruin your day, will it?
We don’t have to live in fear but we do have to remember that our safety is often up to us.