Fire at Changi Airport

Our highly acclaimed world class Changi Airport met with a mishap last evening. There was a fire at Terminal 2, which triggered a full evacuation of the terminal, closure of the terminal for about nine hours, and affected some 40 flights. I wasn’t there, I can’t say how well the incident was managed, but I wonder if they may have somewhat overreacted.

Every news coverage of the fire didn’t describe the fire itself. That’s apparently because, presumably, no one saw any fire. There was smoke, yes, and where there is smoke, there must be fire somewhere. But the fire was “small”. SCDF themselves described it as a small fire, which was put out with a hose reel jet.

The fire was in “a room with air-conditioning equipment”. I presume that to mean the “air handling unit” (AHU) room, which is where cold air is supplied from in a central air-conditioning system of typical commercial buildings.

My understanding is that the AHU systems are supposed to incorporate smoke detectors, which when triggered should activate the fire alarm, and should shutdown the AHU to prevent smoke and fire from spreading. A large area like Terminal 2 would have required many AHU rooms. Interesting that a “small fire” in one room could let so much smoke out, to the extent that the entire terminal was so badly affected.

Reports have described the evacuation as efficient and without chaos. Yes, if there was no apparent danger to anyone, there would be no reason to panic. Travellers might feel annoyed, although reporting from our mainstream media seem to have pretty much skipped this part. If I had just travelled from a faraway land, cooped up in a tiny economy class seat for hours, only to be evacuated to stand on the tarmac for up to three hours, I would be extremely frustrated and angry.

I don’t doubt the preparedness of Changi Airport in handling a disaster incident. However, I just felt, and again I should qualify that I don’t have the whole picture, that perhaps they may have overreacted in activating a disaster plan for an incident that wasn’t of the kind the plan was designed for.

It was a small fire, but it was handled like a major disaster-type event. Changi Airport had to coordinate with regional airports to help manage arrival load in Singapore, so clearly the impact will be felt far farther than our borders.

There is no doubt that safety is important. It is better to err on the safe side. But perhaps once the situation is fully assessed, understood, and under control, they can reevaluate their action plan and make suitable adjustments. For a small fire that was quickly extinguished, a terminal building was shutdown for 9 hours.

It could have been worse had it been some other airports. So perhaps the situation only merely lasting overnight isn’t too much.

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