BEIRUT: In the past several weeks, both industrial and residential fires have been at the top of Lebanon’s local news headlines. Unlike other security concerns, many of the country’s residents can’t lock their doors to ward off the threat of fire hazards. The home itself is the problem, as crowded living conditions and neglected building infrastructure present further safety concerns. With the influx of over a million refugees, residential space has become scarce while rent costs have skyrocketed. In late January, 12 people were injured in a house fire in east Beirut’s working-class suburb of Sadd al-Boushrieh.

The building was formerly a hospital, now repurposed to house over 40 families, mostly Syrian workers, who pay $250 per room.

The landlord said the fire was caused by electrical wiring issues, but forbade residents from speaking to The Daily Star. Nonetheless, a handful of residents gathered in the street, away from the building’s charred interior, to give further details.

“Our main concern was getting the children away from the smoke on the upper floors. Many people were sleeping on the street that night,” said Mahmoud, who lives in the building with his family. He declined to give his last name for fear of retaliation from the landlord.

The fire was one of thousands that Lebanon’s Civil Defense brigades have responded to in the past 14 months. In 2014 alone, the Civil Defense responded to more than 3,500 urban fires, 1,000 of which occurred in residential properties. And the winter season poses its own risks due to wider use of heating units and overtaxed electrical circuits.

Additional hazards include Christmas lights and small electric space heaters.

“House electrical fire hazards are the most common,” the Civil Defense media department said in response to questions by The Daily Star. It added that people tended to plug multiple appliances into a single outlet.

However, individual behavior is just one part of the equation.

Unenforced decrees leave many buildings with inadequate fire safety standards. Consequently, residents are left vulnerable to fire hazards, particularly in the country’s older buildings, where electrical wiring is apt to be worn out.

“Many of the old buildings built before 2012 have no safety mechanism,” said the Civil Defense media department, explaining that safety measures were not mandatory prior to 2013. The department added that residents don’t have to wait for landlords to ensure safety measures, suggesting that they take a proactive approach to protect themselves by installing smoke detectors in the home, purchasing fire extinguishers, and hiring a professional to check electrical wires.

Those on limited incomes are the most likely to live in buildings riddled with fire hazards. They are also the least able to afford such equipment.

“Fire safety is viewed as a luxury,” said Marc Azar, of Azar Fire Protection, a Beirut-based company providing fire protection equipment to both residential buildings and businesses. The cost of a smoke detector with a panel that would alert the fire department, he said, could run anywhere between $500 and $700.

Azar said demand was higher from businesses as opposed to residences, but noted that demand was rising from private homes due to the increasing number of fire incidents. This rise is in parallel to the increased neglect of building maintenance.

“Many of those who buy our equipment have already had an accident due to fire,” Azar said.

Drawing from his experience, he said landlords, particularly those of older buildings, often forego spending money on adequate fire safety measures such as smoke detectors and fire extinguishers.

Government regulations concerning fire safety are vague and difficult to navigate, building safety activists and engineers told The Daily Star. It’s difficult to discern where responsibility lies in enforcing decrees, which give considerable leeway to building owners.

In 2005, the government issued Decree 14293, which is supposed to protect building safety with respect to fire, earthquakes and elevators. In conjunction with previous laws, this requires building owners to have fire prevention and protection mechanisms, and to regularly inspect electrical wiring, heating and air conditioning systems. It further stipulates an adequate number of emergency exits, fire alarms and extinguishers, as well as smoke ventilation systems.

While considered an improvement over previous decrees in streamlining efficiency, the 2005 decree left inspection in the hands of the private sector, and never identified who is responsible for the decree’s enforcement. While the decree was amended in 2012 to improve technical inspections of buildings, safe housing advocate Youssef Azzam said that while the words may look good on paper they don’t result in on-the-ground action.

“There is no real way for [the decree] to be implemented properly,” he said.

Azzam, president of Beirut’s Safe Building Alliance, an NGO that advocates for building safety, called on the government to be more stringent in enforcing decrees.

He said that municipalities on tight budgets, particularly those in poor areas, lack the capacities to inspect and enforce decrees.

Upon completion of a building, the developer pays an engineer to ensure that safety specifications are met, he explained, but since the engineer is paid by the developer, the engineer could be incentivized to overlook gaps in safety standards.

Bilal Hamad, mayor of Beirut, said that the law holds building owners responsible for the structural integrity and fire safety. “We as a municipality will not go in and see if a building has the proper safety precautions,” he said, adding that he and other civil servants continue to lobby for enhanced government regulation of residential buildings.

For their part, landlords have traditionally cited old rent laws that have allowed long-time tenants to pay rent rates far below market value. Per The Daily Star’s 2012 report on crumbling infrastructure, landlords cited lack of funds to make necessary safety updates to buildings.

Bilal Iskandarani, senior fire protection engineer at the American University of Beirut, said that property owners would often choose the cheapest policies when shopping for building insurance; policies that don’t require basic fire protection or cover fire-related damages.

He pointed to the increased burden of risk on the poor and refugees, who often resort to “creative” but hazardous measures to meet basic life needs.

Although residents may not be able to control a building’s safety standards, Iskandarani said that education was a key component in fire prevention.

Iskandarani, who teaches courses on fire safety, said people could protect themselves by knowing the three parts of the fire triangle: heat, oxygen and fuel. “Fires happen when all three are in the same place,” he explained. “By taking any [of them] out of the equation, you can prevent a fire.”