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Fire Safety Regulation in Northeastern Santiago, Chile

by John M. Cobin
Visiting Professor and Policy Consultant
Universidad Francisco Marroquin


This paper extends my previous study of fire safety regulation in Baltimore by presenting similar evidence from northeastern Santiago. Like the dramatic increase in Baltimore through 1994, structural fires per capita in northeastern Santiago have soared 8.9 times since regulation began in 1929 despite massive increases in building safety regulation. I also review general safety theories, relevant reports of fire tragedies worldwide (highlighting construction or inspection failures), policy proposals for safety regulation, and other pertinent data. The evidence strongly support explanations from public choice and knowledge theories about why fire safety regulation would be ineffective in both Baltimore and northeastern Santiago.

Recent scholarly work has criticized the effectiveness of building regulation aimed at promoting the public interest through alleviating fire dangers (Holcombe 1995, pp. 79-106, Foldvary 1994, pp. 114-132, 190-193, Cobin 1997, pp. 6-46). Those studies provide evidence that suggests that confidence in building safety regulation may be overrated. Indeed, it is not clear that such regulation has provided better social benefits than would be available in the market. This paper extends that research by considering fire data in northeastern Santiago, Chile, where building safety regulation has existed since 1929. Correspondingly, present theories about safety are summarized, and some apropos current events and policy issues are noted.

Most building regulation stems from concerns over fires (as was the case in Baltimore, for example), although other elements, like earthquake or hurricane safety, and the promotion of sanitation, have also been important factors (Cobin 1997, p. 7). Conformably, from its inception, building regulation in Chile has focused on earthquakes (1), fires, and negative externalities. One reason for this focus is the broad public interest appeal of safety, part of which arises as news of fire tragedies spreads. Indeed, the public is kept well-informed when fire disasters strike. Major fires make headlines, and we need only look at recent reports to see their prevalence.


I. Anecdotal evidence: a force for creating public opinion

Scientists rightly reject the use of anecdotal evidence in deriving theory, largely due to its lack of logical rigor or consistency, but also because the "facts" and events which comprise anecdotal accounts are dubious, fleeting, and often preclude replication. Nevertheless, anecdotal evidence has some importance for policy relevant research because it has a real influence on the public mind. Public opinion is transformed into vote preferences, and elected officials carry out public wishes in order to optimize votes and remain in office. Their policies generate taxes and regulations which have real affects on citizens. Consequently, one task of policy academics is to confirm or refute popular anecdotes. Moreover, policy research may benefit from analyzing anecdotal evidence insofar as it contributes to the creation of real and lasting regulations.

The following sections summarize recent anecdotal evidence which has contributed to the climate of opinion and the continuance of fire safety policies. A predominant theme among these stories is that the market has failed to adequately deal with natural disasters and negative externalities. Yet the most interesting question scientifically is not whether or not the market yields near perfection, but whether government intervention can improve on what markets do provide. Furthermore, policy research should help us determine whether the problems associated with implementing fire safety programs are a function of government failure or market failure (or both).

Due to their inherent weakness as anecdotes, the following stories cannot provide adequate answers to these important matters. However, they do provide insight into why certain fire safety regulations flourish, and perhaps grant insight into whether market or government failure is culpable for disasters. They also provide an opportunity to refute false premises concerning issues such as arson.

Fire tragedies support calls for intervention in the public mind

The public is always stirred by urban fire tragedies. Although examples could be found in many places, it may suffice to note several recent disasters from a selection of urban areas: New York, Seattle, El Paso, New Jersey, Manila, Duseldorf, Río de Janeiro, and Chile. In general, it is interesting to observe the common focus on faulty construction or some failure of the building inspection process.

A February 1993 skyscraper fire in Manhattan injured 35 firefighters and was likely "caused by bad wiring or a faulty heating device" (Queen and Ladd 1993, p. 24). A house fire in Maspeth in April 1997 killed four people, and was caused by "an illegal electrical hook-up" (Janison 1997, p. A3). The January 1986 Belmont Race Track fire, which killed 45 race horses worth $5 million (Blumenstein and Clemmons 1993) continued to impact the public mind for years. A February 1993 fire in an "unlicensed and unregistered" day care center in Queens, with a non functional smoke detector, killed two children (Queen, Simmons and Taylor 1993, p. 5). A fatal December 1994 house fire in Long Island, which killed five children, was blamed on the lack of smoke detectors and substandard construction techniques in the older home (Smith and Segumpta 1994, p. A21). Thirty severely disabled children were killed in a September 1997 house fire in Chile, which resulted from an electrical problem (Sibaja 1997). Likewise, in January 1995, a fire in an older Seattle warehouse without a sprinkler system killed four firemen (Quan 1995).

A fire in an amusement park's haunted house in El Paso in April 1994 seriously burned four people. It is not clear whether the fire was caused by either arson or accident, but it is evident that the park had never been inspected. Fire safety inspectors blamed lack of staff in regulated areas outside of the city limits. Unlike areas within the city limits, where inspections are required yearly, it is difficult for the state to do effective inspections in county areas (Collins 1994a). This disaster was not unrivaled. The facts in the El Paso fire were similar to a New Jersey amusement park fire in May 1984 where eight teen-age boys were killed. Neither smoke detectors nor automatic sprinkler systems were present in either fire (Collins 1994b). Since then, large crowds at Disneyland in Anaheim, California have raised fire safety concerns. People have complained of being "confined" and unable to move at major events (Dickerson 1996, p. D-1).

At least one hundred and sixty-one people were killed in a March 1996 midnight fire in a Manila discotheque. The building was designed to hold 50 people, but had 300 that night. It was the deadliest disaster in the Philippines since World War II. Lax safety standards, said to be common in rapidly developing nations, were blamed (Son 1996). Six owners of the discotheque were charged with "reckless imprudence" and violating the building code, and fifteen "former and current Quezon City officials" were indicted for permitting it "to operate in spite of serious flaws in the design" (Vaughan 1996 and Anonymous 1996a).

Similar concerns were raised after the April 1996 fire with sixteen fatalities due to the inhalation of toxic gases at the Dusseldorf, Germany airport. That fire started when welding sparks ignited roofing insulation (Rochelle and Alexander 1996, p. 10B). In another airport fire, the historic terminal in Río de Janeiro burned in February 1998 due to a short circuit (Anonymous 1998b, pp. A1, A5).

Overall, it seems that the sensitivity of the public mind is heightened to fear fire disasters while the apparent culprit, the failure of government to adequately provide fire safety, is almost universally deflected. Of course, one must be careful to recognize that this anecdotal evidence could hardly provide conclusive evidence that government fails all or even most of the time to adequately provide fire safety. Indeed, these stories could be exceptional. However, they do at least provide a challenge for those who support government intervention to prove that these cases are indeed exceptions and that by and large government provision of safety regulation has improved on the market.

Rigorous fire code enforcement: reports from Los Angeles that bolster public confidence

Urban safety regulation is subject to a number of important economic criticisms, especially from public choice and knowledge theories (2). Nevertheless, it continues to be a key public policy objective in many places on account of public opinion and the incentives for vote seekers that it generates. In fact, many jurisdictions are diligently endeavoring to make fire safety regulation succeed.

In Los Angeles, for instance, fire code enforcement has been particularly rigorous. The city recently formed "a unit to handle all criminal and civil cases involving properties with code violations", citing some recent indictments. The purpose of the new unit is to have "much more control to monitor the city's problem buildings under one roof" (Anonymous 1997b, p. B-4). Enforcement of code violations has been severe at times, with many charges being brought against violators during the last two years. These activities help satisfy public expectations that government is working to protect and to serve.

For example, a Van Nuys owner was "charged with poor upkeep of one his properties", fined $705, and placed on probation for a year (Williams 1996, p. B3). Another man, who was called "one of Los Angeles' most notorious slumlords" was captured after living as a fugitive for eight years. He was charged with more than 100 building code violations for which he was sentenced to 23 months in jail, although his sentence could be extended to up to 56 years on account of probation violations (Abrahamson 1996, p. B-1). An Encino man was also charged with "criminal slum violations" of 22 various fire, health, and building safety code violations. He was earlier fined $12,202, forced to make repairs, and "do 120 hours of community service" (Oliande 1997, p. B-3).

The owner of a dilapidated apartment building in Los Angeles was "charged with 53 misdemeanor violations of city and county building, health, and fire codes" (Tobar 1997, p. B-6). Some apartment owners in Hollywood faced "criminal charges for allowing slum conditions in three buildings" for "38 violations of fire, health, and building and safety codes" and because the owners refused to comply with citations issued by the building safety department. In two of the buildings, tenants were living without heat and there were holes in their walls. Inspectors had found "cockroach infestation, hazardous electrical wiring, a broken central fire alarm system, blocked broken fire doors, trash on the grounds and security bars without quick release devices, which are a fire hazard" (Anonymous 1997a, p. B-5).

Despite their purported successes, such rigorous public policies which apparently positively impress the public mind have not gone without scholarly criticism. For instance, Thomas Sowell contends that the destruction of low income housing through such code enforcement and restrictions leads to other social ills, such as homelessness. He argues that it would be better to realize that we are "inherently constrained by reality", that reality is not constrained by our acceptance of it, and that many unpleasant elements are not readily preventable as many savants would like to believe (Sowell 1995, p. 246). In short, such code enforcement may make social problems worse because they change institutional and incentives structures which lead to indirect adverse economic consequences.

Consequently, even if regulation were made more effective by code enforcement, the betterment due to conformity with the code might be offset by the other social problems generated as a result of the policy. This notion, which has been bolstered by other theorists (like Lester Lave) as well, corroborates public choice and inadequate social knowledge critiques of fire regulation.

Arson bolsters popular support for government fire safety regulation

On occasion, structural fires are the result of arson. A person can rarely be completely safe from arson -- no matter how safely his home is built -- making technological concerns of less value in preventing arson than strict law enforcement. However, some people evidently believe the hypothesis that arson is a function of under-regulation.

For instance, some have claimed that arson might have been prevented in the summer 1994 house fire in Riverhead, New York, where there are many older uninspected and unregulated accessory apartments. Town officials lamented that "they were powerless to prevent the tragedy at the structure" (Freedman 1996, p, A72). Later, with owners facing stiff fines, an amnesty program was offered whereby owners could obtain permits and thus legalize these apartments, helping bring them up to code (Rau 1996). Those officials did not make clear in their press statement why more fire safety regulation would have been able to prevent arson, which could, it seems, equally affect any structure, whether or not it complied with the fire code. Preventing arson, or at least bringing arsonists to justice, is normally the role of the police power rather than a function of building safety regulation.

Indeed, police have been busy chasing arsonists. A wave of some sixty-six arson fires in black churches in the southern United States since 1995 seems to have been spawned by racial hatred (Weintraub 1996, p. 4A). Arson was also suspected in the December 1993 burning of a renowned synagogue in Moscow, although no evidence was found to prove the hunch (Goldberg 1994). Nevertheless, building and fire safety codes do not deal with racial policy. The threat of arson fomented by racial strife has, however, produced market incentives to step up its prevention. Alarmed by the news of the church fires, many religious leaders "are reviewing insurance coverage and security measures to make sure buildings are financially and physically protected against arson" (Sharn 1996, p. 8A). Such market generated care mechanisms are not confined to threat of arson. Firms also have incentives to reduce accidents by improving electrical safety in their plants, even by rewarding good performance (Lawrie 1995, p. 62). Therefore, market provision of safety is a considerable element of fire prevention. Even when fire safety regulation fails, market provision endures to produce vital means.

In reality, arson occurs because of a variety of motivations, and these are rarely, if ever, related to the building or fire code, which are designed to promote safety from accidents primarily, rather than to prevent intentional destructive acts. For instance, arson attacks comprised part of anti-government protesting in Bahrain in March 1996 and May 1996 (Salman 1996). Fire safety regulation is not directed at curbing political violence. Thus, despite popular belief to the contrary, the hypothesis that arson is a function of under-regulation should be rejected.

Moreover, a more plausible hypothesis might be that over-regulation, or at least the provision of public safety itself at times, causes arson. In Long Island, New York, two firemen and a fire police officer were arrested and accused of arson in four fires in 1991 and 1992. It was suggested that their motivation could have been either boredom or the desire to become a hero by stopping a blaze. Other firemen in the area had been similarly charged earlier, causing concern over the pending approval of the department's budget (Witherspoon 1993, p. 22). Likewise, in Cape Town, two naval firemen were detained and questioned in connection with an explosion and fire on a naval base in Cape Argus (Anonymous 1998a). A public choice argument could be advanced that, had the perpetrators not been caught, the fires were set in order to increase public concern and therefore increase the odds of getting budgetary approval for expanded fire protection services. Fire codes will not be very effective when those employed to enforce them become code violators themselves.

Differences in popular opinion about the public provision of fire safety

Calls for more safety regulation

Bureaucrats often complain that they do not have the resources needed to discharge their regulatory tasks well. The United States Department of Transportation opined that it had a very small inspection staff, noting that they are currently not able to inspect more than 11% of regulated underground pipeline accidents. In one accident, one hundred people were injured and eight buildings destroyed when an underground pipeline exploded (Cary 1995, pp. 27, 28). In New York, a parapet collapsed in April 1993, injuring four people. Although a multimillionaire supermarket owner had been fined several times and cited for "failure to maintain a safe building", the defect was not repaired in time. Regulators noted that they only had a small inspection staff, running on tight schedules, making it difficult for them to prevent such problems (Perez-Rivas 1993, p. 6). Santiago building regulators have complained that a scarcity of trained inspection personnel has led to many tragic deaths in apartment buildings with poor ventilation (Acuña 1997, p. 34). In each of these cases, the accidents reported imply a call for expanded safety regulation, and imply the need for larger budgets. Likewise, the persistent and endemic nature of brush fires in Australia has led scholars to commend public policies aimed at improving record keeping and reporting to improve decision making, and a wiser use of subsidies, along with noting the social costs and possible inefficiencies of reliance on volunteerism to raise a fire fighting staff (Hatch and Jarrett 1985, pp. 110-112).

Lawrence Southwick, Jr. and Richard J. Butler conducted an extensive econometric study of fire department demand and supply in larger cities in the United States, considering fire losses, firefighter income, and population density (among other variables). One of their policy implications included "increasing the stringency of fire protection codes; increasing the frequency and rigour of building inspections (as they relate to detection and correction of fire hazards)" (Southwick and Butler 1985, pp. 1061). In other words, they concurred with the popular opinion above that more regulation is needed.

Public fears are heightened by reports of fires, "freak accidents, and terrorist activities" pertaining to modern skyscrapers (Sanger and Henry 1993, p. 84). In light of the Oklahoma City bombing, a New York legislator "called for the passage of legislation requiring state-owned buildings to comply with New York City fire codes" (Alden 1995, p. A23). New York City has the toughest safety codes in the United States, but this fact is no match for terrorism, as was the case in the bombing of the World Trade Center. Yet, some officials argue that there is a "hole in the fire-safety net" because such federal buildings are not subject to the city's code (Phillips and Murphy 1993, p. 29).

These pleas could represent instances where political leaders are trying to enact policy that promotes the public interest. However, it should be noted that, from a public choice perspective, such warnings are congruent with the vote-seeing motive, as well as maximizing departmental budgets and promoting public goodwill for safety bureaucracies. Policymakers have often sought to use fire externalities to their advantage, which inevitably leads to public choice problems. For instance, a century ago, the Buenos Aires fire insurance market seemed to have been adversely affected by interest group pressures or even outright regulatory capture (Jones 1984, p. 125).

Fire safety regulation is not uniform everywhere. In some industries, special fire safety regulation applies. For instance, in the Southern California movie industry, special permits are required for filming special effects and stunts that use fire (Warchol 1997, p. B-1). In St. Louis, special fire safety regulation has been sought for buildings where fireworks are sold (Martin 1993a, p. 1), although some have opposed the measure saying it will indirectly overturn the current prohibition of fireworks sales in the city (Martin 1993b, p. 3). In other words, and corresponding to Sowell's argument, some people think that the benefits of the new regulation might be more than offset by indirect social costs elsewhere.

In Clark County, Washington, regulators have expressed concern that many older buildings would collapse in a large earthquake (although they also note that this problem can be remedied), implying the importance of continuing safety regulation for the public interest (Bishop 1998, p. C1). Likewise, regulators have raised fears of fires in Cape Town, since many public buildings there (perhaps 80% of them) do not comply with fire safety codes (Barnes and Aranes 1997). Moreover, some call for uniform international standards, which would require more regulation, in order to better facilitate product and service design, construction, and equipment supply provided by international companies (Webster 1995, p. 45).

Firefighters in places like Colorado Springs object to houses being legally built in relatively inaccessible places (Foster 1997, p. 10A). Some have further argued that we must overcome special interests (e.g., developers, insurers, lenders, and residents) with respect to building in dangerous or disaster-prone areas. Each should be compelled to subordinate their own self interests in favor of a plan that benefits society, where the National Academy of Sciences decides on an appropriate plan for "building codes, insurance requirements and government roles" (Hunter 1995). Others suggest that regulation should be used to discourage people from rebuilding in hazardous areas, perhaps via stricter codes (even though residents deserve help when disaster strikes). Plus, local government should reduce the possibility of disastrous consequences by "buying out homeowners in the highest-risk areas" (Anonymous 1998c, p. B-6).

Calls for less safety regulation

Not everyone wants more safety regulation, and many voters have raised their opposition to it. For instance, an initiative to create a statewide building code in Missouri was defeated (Ganey 1994, p. 3B). The effort was spawned as a result of the unbridled expansion of the city of Branson. Although there was never any building catastrophe in Branson, some people were concerned about the town's expansion into unregulated county areas (Cobin 1997, p. 13). In Ventura County, California, local legislators favored a reduction in the regulation of farm buildings, since the costs to farmers of that regulation have been high (Chi 1998, p. B-1). In addition, major think tanks in the United States, from both ends of the political spectrum, agree that much safety regulation is inefficient and should be reformed (Marlowe 1997, p. 39A).

In his book, The Death of Common Sense: How Law Is Suffocating America, Phillip K. Howard records instances where overzealous regulation and highly complex litigation have been socially detrimental and opposed to common sense. Regulations now seem to replace thinking, judgment, and accountability (Howard 1995a). Howard notes that stringent fire rules have caused the removal of seemingly innocuous posting of artwork in schools because the code says that paper must not occupy more than 20% of the wall space and not be closer than ten feet from exits. One observer noted the rule gives schools an atmosphere like a "bomb shelter" (Howard 1995c, p. B/1).

A YMCA had completed a renovation when the fire code changed, requiring the installation of a new fire alarm system, costing $200,000. This money could have been used to "provide yearlong programs for a hundred kids" (Howard 1995b, p. 58) Howard complains, "Government acts like some extraterrestrial power, not an institution that exists to serve us" (Howard 1995b, p. 57). "We seem to have achieved the worst of both worlds: a system of regulation that goes too far while it also does too little...we have constructed a system of regulatory law that basically outlaws common sense...modern law has not protected us from stupidity and caprice, but has made stupidity and caprice dominant features of our society" (Howard 1995c, p. B/1). Indeed, corresponding to the theory that inadequate social knowledge will curtail building safety regulation, he notes that "no building code examiner can possibly know all the rules in thick government volumes" and that the main beneficiaries of the proliferation of all the regulation and legislation are lawyers, who now have "endless opportunities" (Howard 1995b, p. 58). "By exiling judgment, modern law has changed its role from useful tool to brainless tyrant" (Howard 1995b, p. 61).

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