Is P-Noy protecting Mar on deadly fire? by Boo Chanco, Philippine Star

Is P-Noy protecting Mar on deadly fire?

About a week ago, P-Noy cleared the Bureau of Fire Protection (BFP) of responsibility in the deadly fire that engulfed a slippers factory in Valenzuela City. The President, instead, blamed the LGU for issuing a business permit without a fire safety inspection certificate (FSIC) from the BFP.

I thought something was wrong because the President’s statements were too one sided for comfort. It was all about how the BFP, which is under the DILG led by Sec. Mar Roxas, is blameless and nothing about the side of the LGU in question. It is easy to see politics intruding since Mar is the supposed LP presidential bet and the Valenzuela LGU is headed by someone from the opposition.

The President was very sure in his statement: “There were people in the Valenzuela City government who gave them a permit and the certificate of occupancy. That is an established fact. There are people who died because of their lax enforcement of existing rules and they have to answer for that.”

P-Noy went on to assert that the fire protection bureau notified Kentex and the local government of Valenzuela City of the fire safety requirements violated by the slippers factory.

I checked things out by asking Valenzuela mayor Rex Gatchalian. The mayor does not dispute the fact that he did issue provisional business and occupancy permits. But, he explained, like all other cities in the country, they issue the provisional business permits with the understanding the BFP would conduct the fire inspection and inform them of the outcome.

Gatchalian claimed the issuance of the provisional business permits is done pursuant to three memo circulars, two of which were issued by DILG Secretary Jesse Robredo, the other one by BFP designed to make the city more business friendly. They have been able to reduce the amount of time it takes to get City Hall business clearances and even won for Valenzuela various awards for cutting red tape and helping job creating entrepreneurs get started.

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The two memo circulars from DILG enjoined LGUs to set up one stop shops that streamline the issuance of business permits. It also stated that after issuing provisional business permits, the BFP is tasked to inspect and get back to the LGU their findings, listing down the establishments whose provisional business permits must be revoked.

Gatchalian stressed “in the case of Kentex, BFP never reported to the LGU their findings.” So, did the BFP lie to P-Noy when they made the assertion they informed Valenzuela City Hall of their adverse findings? Or is this a palusot to protect Mar Roxas who has command responsibility over BFP?

Gatchalian told me that under the rules, BFP should inspect the establishment three days upon receipt of the fire inspection fee remitted by the LGU. “In our case not only did we remit the fee to notify them as to which establishment we issued provisional business permits, but we also sent them copies of applications of the business permits.”

Indeed, Gatchalian said, they took extra steps to keep the local fire marshal in the loop.

“There is a national mandate instructing LGUs to create peace and order councils in the cities and who should sit there. It did not say the city’s fire marshal should be a member, but in the case of Valenzuela we issued an executive order making the fire marshal sit in the council that meets monthly. The minutes of these meetings will bear that the fire marshal never reported negative findings.”

The Valenzuela mayor added that “assuming I did not want to listen to them in revoking the business permitthe BFP as stated in the Fire Code can shut down the establishment on their own without any need for the mayor to revoke the business permit. Which they never did.

The memo circulars of the late Sec. Robredo did not supersede the Fire Code nor did it waive the FSIC requirement. The memo circulars simply harmonized the Anti Red Tape Act and the Fire Code’s provisions.

The Robredo memos also took into account the reality that BFP cannot realistically inspect all establishments before the renewal of business permits by allowing provisional business permits and post BFP inspections. This is a practice in almost all LGUs, especially the big ones.

So, when P-Noy said the Valenzuela City government should not have allowed the Kentex factory to operate since it lacked a FSIC, he did not realize that a DILG directive allowed issuing a provisional permit to cut red tapeIt was the BFP at fault for not communicating to the local government the result of their inspection. As it turns out, the Kentex factory did not have the required automatic fire sprinkler system, fire detection and alarm system and protected fire exits.

Ironically, implementing this DILG circular by Mar Roxas’ predecessor won for the Valenzuela LGU the Galing Pook award, two most business friendly awards by PCCI, and made the National Competitiveness Council rank them 9th most competitive city in doing business. DILG itself awarded them 2011 Best Governed Highly Urbanized City.

What P-Noy did is typical after a horrible tragedy… seek ways to wash off responsibility. This is even more critical because Mar has command responsibility over the BFP which makes BFP’s failures eventually Mar’s.

The numbers clearly indicate it was a failure not so much of the LGU but of BFP. Maybe BFP is also not properly staffed to carry out its mandates. Worse, common experience with BFP inspectors indicate they are more concerned with selling fire extinguishers than ensuring compliance to the Fire Code.

As Mayor Gatchalian pointed out, “if the BFP did its job then, by now all establishments should have FSICs. Imagine, it’s already June and in Valenzuela only 2,000 establishments have FSICs, some 13,000 still do not. Even SM Valenzuela doesn’t have  a FSIC. It lapsed last March, they keep asking BFP to inspect and renew, to no avail.”

The Valenzuela mayor gave me statistics to prove his point. In Metro Manila out of 295,885 establishments, only 83,612 were inspected in 2014 or 28 percent. In Makati, only 13 percent were inspected, Malabon and Navotas, 15 percent each. Highest percentage inspected is in San Juan at 89 percent.

In Valenzuela, there were 15,775 Business Permit renewal applications for the period of  Jan. 1, 2014 to Dec. 31, 2014. The BFP inspected only 3,577 (22.54 percent) establishments in 2014. Of this number, only 2,667 (16.91 percent) were issued FSIC.

Now, following the verbal instructions of P-Noy to close down all establishments with no fire inspection certificates, the Valenzuela LGU has issued closure orders, including for SM’s Valenzuela mall. This means massive lay offs of workers because it is impossible for BFP to complete their inspections within the week provided by Valenzuela mayor Gatchalian.

I am not a fan of the Kilusang Mayo Uno, but I think they are spot on when they observed that this new policy of requiring a fire inspection certificate or be closed down is just a cover-up for the massive bureaucratic failure related to the fire in Kentex which killed 72 people.

If they implement P-Noy’s directive strictly, there will be widespread retrenchment of employees and not just in Valenzuela, but all over the country, given the low number of establishments with a fire Safety Inspection Certificate (FSIC) from the BFP.

The KMU is urging the government to mandate business owners to pay their employees in full even while their establishments are closed. This is not going to happen. It will be unfair for businesses to pay for the incompetence of government. But the KMU is right in urging the government to look into BFP’s process of issuing Fire Safety Inspection Certificates.

What worries me is P-Noy seems to be less and less able to screen out the palusots of his bungling bureaucratic team. He directly blamed the LGU and exonerated the BFP without considering factual evidence.

P-Noy will have a serious social upheaval in his hands as large numbers of people lose their jobs, if the LGUs follow his order to close down establishments without fire inspection certificates. It is one thing to say something that looks good in a headline, and quite another that captures reality on the ground.

P-Noy and his presumed anointed, Mar Roxas, should know the BFP does not have the means to instantly correct a serious defect in their system that has been there for years. The headline P-Noy got is good for a day, but the social impact of carrying it out will haunt him for the rest of his term.

Think before you speak, is a good advice for P-Noy. And yes, investigate fully, talk to all parties and not just to one who is most guilty of the tragic negligence.

Boo Chanco’s e-mail address is bchanco@gmail.com. Follow him on Twitter @boochanco

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