When reforms and the proper enforcement of safety regulations are delayed, it can often result in tragedy. This is exactly what happened on August 14, 2022, when a warehouse at the popular Surmalu market in Yerevan caught fire and exploded in yet unclarified circumstances, leaving 16 people dead, 60 injured and many unanswered questions regarding safety regulations in the country. According to preliminary reports, the warehouse was storing four tons of highly flammable material. A criminal investigation has yet to determine what material was stored and in what quantity. Deputy Minister of Emergency Situations Davit Hambaryan announced that the circumstances that allowed for the storage of such highly flammable material in the city must also be investigated.
The Surmalu tragedy and the mismanagement of the disaster did not end there. On September 21, over a month after the deadly blast, one of the walls of the damaged building collapsed, wounding three people and with debris falling on nearby cars and shops. The area had not been cordoned off until the second accident and police had not restricted the area until after the collapse of the wall. It took a full week before the Yerevan municipality granted permission to the owner of the market to demolish the damaged Surmalu building. The building was finally demolished on October 12, almost two months after the blast.
It is not clear why the process of knocking down the damaged building took so long to commence. The Ministry of Emergency Situations (MES) and the Investigative Committee announced they had concluded their investigation of the accident before the wall collapsed on September 21. According to the MES, it informed the Yerevan municipality, the Investigative Committee and the Urban Development Committee on September 2 that the building should be demolished immediately. The MES also informed the relevant state bodies that the building could not remain standing and that a restricted security zone should be created around it with a radius of 14 meters.
The investigation has not yet determined what caused the blast. Following the August 14 explosion the Urban Development, Technical Standards and Fire Safety Inspectorate (henceforth Inspectorate) revealed that in March 2021, it had identified 16 fire safety violations at the market when it conducted a regular inspection last year and had issued an order to eliminate the violations. Less than a month after the inspection, a fire broke out at the market but the Inspectorate had not visited the market after its inspection of last March.
The Inspectorate is subordinate to the Armenian Government and is responsible for supervising and ensuring compliance with safety and legislative regulations in urban development, technical and fire safety, transport, energy, local and national geodetic and surveying activities and land use. It has the authority to impose sanctions on facilities which are under its supervision. Warehouses, production facilities, gas stations, trade and catering, agricultural, scientific and educational facilities, hotels and hospitals are among facilities that are monitored by the Inspectorate throughout the country.
According to the Inspectorate, the exact number of annual inspections is not established in advance, but is rather approved on a year-by-year basis by the Management Board of the Inspectorate, taking into account its available resources.
The frequency of inspections is determined by the law on The Organization and Conduct of Inspections in the Republic of Armenia which stipulates that the inspection body cannot conduct more than one visit per year to high-risk facilities, while in mid- and low-risk facilities inspections are conducted once every 3-5 years. The inspection process and methodology are also defined by the law. High-risk facilities make up 20% of the facilities under the control of the inspection body. According to Lilit Gharibyan, the Head of the Risk Assessment and Analysis Department of the Urban Development, Technical Standards and Fire Safety Inspectorate, their main focus is high-risk facilities.
“All facilities in Armenia are subject to regulation, whether they are high risk, medium or low. Who said that a low risk facility cannot become the site of a big accident? From the point of view of fire safety, all of them carry risk,” said Gharibyan.
Many Tasks and Few Resources
The Surmalu shopping center is still considered a high-risk facility. The second inspection was planned to be conducted a whole one and a half years after the March 2021 inspection because of the inspection body’s overextended resources.
“Taking into account the inspection body’s overburdened state in the first half of 2022, the re-inspection of the Sumalu shopping center was planned to be carried out in September [of the same year],” said Inspectorate spokesperson Yelena Zohrabyan. She noted that the body’s overextension is due to the high volume of planned inspections and investigations of other sites, as well as the volume of administrative offense cases. In addition to routine annual inspections, checks are also carried out after public complaints, on the instructions of the Prime Minister, and on the request of other government bodies.
The Inspectorate also investigates facilities on an ad hoc basis to understand the situation on the ground. For example, this year it conducted fire safety assessments in medical institutions of the country to understand the situation, taking into account a higher volume of patients because of the pandemic.
The Inspectorate employs around 40 individual inspectors in the country; nine inspectors are allocated to Yerevan. Zohrabyan says that three of the nine positions are vacant, and one of the six is the head of the department. Thus only five inspectors are in charge of over 300 facilities in Yerevan. The government has approved an application by the Inspectorate to increase the number of its staff. There will be 272 positions in the entire country across the five sectors which are under the supervision of the Inspectorate, including administrative staff.
Oversight and Fines
According to Zohrabyan, there is no fixed time frame for eliminating violations. In the order issued to the Surmalu market, different deadlines were set to address over a dozen violations.
While the director of the Surmalu market claimed that all fire safety violations at the shopping center had been addressed, Zohrabyan named only one violation that she was sure had been dealt with. “The installation of the fire hydrant was agreed with us [the Inspectorate], and it was also agreed with the MES,” she said. The newly installed fire hydrant was used on the day of the explosion by firefighters.
Zohrabyan also noted that at the time of the explosion, the order had already expired, but the Law on the Organization and Conduct of Inspections does not specify a clear deadline to conduct a re-inspection․ The Inspectorate defines and carries out the re-inspection according to their work plan and workload; during 2021-2022, the Inspectorate had to re-inspect 302 facilities, 240 of which have already been inspected a second time.
As different violations require different resources the Inspectorate sets different time frames to address them. Zohrabyan said that for installing the fire extinguishers a short time frame was given, but for the installation of a fire hydrant and a water tank, taking into account the size of the market and other factors, a different deadline was set. Zohrabyan also noted that the inspectors discuss how much time they might require to eliminate all violations with facility managers.
“The [facility managers] always ask for the longest possible time period, but the Inspectorate assigns a reasonable deadline and the business entity must fix the violations within that time frame,” Zohrabyan said, adding that in the case of Surmalu, the director had agreed to the time frame assigned by the Inspectorate without any objections.
She also stated that there are no set mechanisms for the Inspectorate to suspend or terminate the operation of a facility due to quantity or severity of safety violations. “If the Inspectorate decides to stop or suspend the operation of a business based on a potential risk, the business will appeal the decision in court immediately and the court will not be guided by the presence of probable risk, but by economic interest,” said Zohrabyan. “The court says, look, you have hindered the economic activity for four months, but in fact there was no fire there, so compensate.”
According to Zohrabyan, the purpose of the Inspectorate is not to hinder economic activity or fine a business, but to give entities enough time to correct violations. She also stated that the Inspectorate tries to assign a sensible time frame so the violations can be eliminated, “so we don’t fine the same entity every year but violations are not fixed.”
The law stipulates that if a business entity fails to eliminate the violations by the second re-inspection, the Inspectorate can stop its operation. In the best case scenario, three years can pass after a violation is registered under the current law. If the same violations are not eliminated by the first re-inspection, the entity is fined a larger sum, and if the violations are not eliminated after the second re-inspection, the Inspectorate can terminate the business’s operation. From January 2020 until August 2022 the Inspectorate suspended the operation of only four facilities.
For many businesses like the Surmalu market, which generate large profits, it is often cheaper and easier to pay the fine than to eliminate the fire safety violations. By law, the biggest amount that businesses can be fined for safety regulation violations is 50,000 AMD (over $120 US).
The Inspectorate has proposed a bill which will increase the fines. For big shopping centers, 50,000 drams is not a large sum, but for smaller businesses which are deemed high-risk but don’t have much revenue, “the same 50,000 drams is not fair,” said Zohrabyan. According to her, this issue is also addressed in the draft bill.
Banning Fireworks Is Not the Answer
Following the blast, ruling Civil Contract Party member Tigran Avinyan, who was later elected deputy mayor of Yerevan and will also be the party’s candidate for the Yerevan municipality elections next year, called on banning the sale of fireworks, and took the issue to parliament. While the ruling party representative calls for a ban on fireworks, there have been no official statements on the shortcomings of Armenia’s safety regulations.
The Inspectorate is understaffed and overextended. Moreover, in times of extreme events, like a pandemic, its workload increases even more. As a result, people suffer. It remains to be seen if the adoption of the new bill will address the problems in the monitoring of safety regulations.
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This next installment in a series of articles on Yerevan looks at issues concerning the transportation infrastructure, most importantly, the need for a modern public transport system, something that has plagued the capital since independence.Read more
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