Investigation of the apartment fire leading to the death of a mother and three children in Vuosaari completed – Proper maintenance of smoke alarms should be ensured and user interfaces of sauna stoves improved

Published 4.9.2017

Investigation of the apartment fire that broke out in the early hours on 9 December 2016 in Vuosaari, Helsinki has been completed. The fire started from cloths which were ignited by the sauna stove. The four people who were in the apartment, the immigrant mother and her three children, died in the fire. There were no smoke alarms in the apartment.

It is the occupants’ responsibility to see that smoke alarms are installed and maintained properly. Despite this, homes are often lacking smoke alarms and it seems that stressing the occupants’ own responsibility is not sufficient.

- It does not seem to work that occupants have sole responsibility for the installation and maintenance of smoke alarms. This has been noticed in several investigations. Responsibility for maintaining functioning smoke alarms should be delegated also to other parties, as appropriate. For example, housing cooperatives could have smoke alarms installed in several apartments at once, says Kai Valonen, Chief Safety Investigator of the Safety Investigation Authority.

With respect to smoke alarms, the Safety Investigation Authority recommends that the Ministry of the Interior, jointly with operators in the property business, identify and implement best practices for creating commitment among property owners and maintainers to ensure, for their part, the existence and maintenance of smoke alarms. Furthermore, responsibility for maintaining smoke alarms should be allocated to housing cooperatives as well, where necessary.

Another key observation made in the investigation concerns the electric sauna stove, as the fact that it was turned on proved to be a crucial factor in the accident:

- Sauna stove user interfaces are outdated. Many people have gotten used to them growing up and manage fine. But this is not the case with everyone, which means that accidents can happen. The control knobs are often ambiguous and markings on them are unclear, and there is no light, for example, that would indicate that the timer or the sauna stove is switched on. There are plenty of opportunities for development. Different kinds of user interfaces have been studied a lot and best practices exist. It is just a matter of applying them. Therefore it is worrying that none of the stove manufacturers answered to our request for a statement, says Veli-Pekka Nurmi, Executive Director of the Safety Investigation Authority.

The safety recommendation presented as a result of the investigation is aimed at the major sauna stove manufacturers. Manufacturers are urged to develop the safety features of stove user interfaces in order to include features that prevent human errors in basic sauna stoves as well. Development efforts by stove manufacturers themselves are the best and quickest way to achieve this, as good solutions are often transferred into standards that bind all stove manufacturers.

Other safety recommendations focus on immigrants’ safety skills, automatic fire extinguishing systems and the address system

The Safety Investigation Authority recommends that the Ministry of Economic Affairs and Employment, Ministry of the Interior, Ministry of Social Affairs and Health, and the Ministry of Education and Culture survey the problems faced by immigrants in terms of safety in their daily lives and housing, and reform the reception, integration and training system for immigrants with a view to ensuring that immigrants acquire basic safety skills. For some immigrants, Western safety thinking and culture as well as the authorities’ operating models are familiar; to others, they may be very foreign.

In addition, the Safety Investigation Authority reiterates the recommendation given in connection with the apartment building fire in Turku in 2014. According to the recommendation, the Ministry of the Environment should prepare a long-term plan on whether automatic fire extinguishing systems should be installed in new and refurbished apartment buildings, and possibly other residential buildings as well. Furthermore, the Safety Investigation Authority reiterates the recommendation given on the basis of the investigation of the Espoo excavation site accident in 2006. The recommendation urges the Ministry of the Interior, jointly with the Association of Finnish Local and Regional Authorities and other administrators of the address system, to investigate how well the creation and updating of the address system functions and whether more detailed provisions are required in addition to existing guidelines.

The primary purpose of an address is to single out the location in a manner that makes it easy to locate and find if necessary. This is especially important in the case of urgent official duties, where street addresses that differ from the visiting address may cause significant delays.

Further information:
Veli-Pekka Nurmi, Executive Director, tel. +358 295 150 701 (Twitter: @VPNurmi)
Chief Safety Investigator Kai Valonen, tel. +358 295 150 707 (Twitter: @KValonen)