Fire that resulted in the deaths of four people in a flat in Vuosaari, Helsinki on 9 December 2016
On the night of 9 December 2016, a fire broke out in an apartment in Vuosaari, Helsinki, leading to the death of everyone in the apartment, an immigrant mother and her three children. The father was at work when the events took place.
The fire started from the electric sauna stove that was turned on for some purpose or accidentally. No fault was found with the stove in the technical investigation. Children’s clothes, among others, had been hung to dry in the sauna and near the stove.
There was no smoke alarm in the apartment, so the mother and children probably awoke to the fire only when it was too late to leave the apartment. Moreover, the mother had three small children to assist. It is also possible that, as the apartment doors opened inwards, the positive pressure created by the fire made it temporarily difficult to open the doors.
An emergency call was made by the family’s neighbour at 02:47:40, based on sounds coming from the apartment. The emergency response centre alerted several rescue service units, an ambulance and police patrols to the scene. The first unit was at the site ten minutes after the emergency call. Some time was wasted due to the entrance to the stairwell being on a different street than the street address indicates. In addition, the fire was on the sixth floor, which took some time to reach.
The rescuers found the victims in a smoke-filled apartment, where the fire had already burned down after consuming the oxygen inside the apartment. The fire was mainly in the sauna and bathroom, but burn traces were found also in the hallway. There was, however, a great deal of smoke everywhere in the apartment and in the top part of the stairwell. The rescuers quickly transferred the victims to the paramedics’ care, but at that point they were already dead.
The rental housing company had installed smoke alarms in all apartments upon the building’s completion, ten years earlier. However, now the smoke alarm was missing. It was not possible to find out when the smoke alarm had been removed. The apartment had been inspected after the previous tenants moved out in the year before the fire, but the lack of smoke alarm was not noted in the inspection. Since 2009, regulations require an apartment of this size to have at least two smoke alarms installed.
The family did not have sufficient safety skills, partly due to their immigrant background, which was reflected in that they had no smoke alarm and lacked knowledge on how to use the sauna. The father had been living in Finland for the longest, and he alone took care of heating the sauna and operating the stove. Likely course of the accident is that the sauna stove was on timer mode and began to heat up during the night, approximately one hour before the fire broke out. Nowadays an increasing number of Finnish people are unfamiliar with the use of a sauna. Problems may be caused by the poor user safety of control knobs on many electric sauna stoves. There are no child safety locks or indicator lights, for example.
As the fire broke out behind closed doors, in the sauna and bathroom, it was possible for the fire to develop unnoticed. Getting a fire under control early enough when it breaks out in an auxiliary room, as in this case, would require an automatic extinguishing system that are usually not installed in ordinary apartments in Finland.
The Safety Investigation Authority recommends the following:
• The Ministry of the Interior, together with operators in the property business, should 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.
• The Ministry of Economic Affairs and Employment, Ministry of the Interior, Ministry of Social Affairs and Health, and the Ministry of Education and Culture should 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 immigrants’ basic safety skills.
• Harvia, Helo, Narvi and Iki-kiuas, the largest manufacturers of electric sauna stoves in Finland, should develop the “user interface" of the sauna stoves in a way that makes the operation of the control knobs understandable, clearly indicates the switching on of the timer and sauna stove to the user, improves the operating ergonomics and provides sufficient safety features for children. These human error prevention features are also required in entry-level sauna stoves.
In addition, the Safety Investigation Authority reiterates earlier recommendations, according to which:
• The Ministry of the Environment shall prepare a justified, long-term plan regarding whether automatic fire extinguishing systems should be installed in new and renovated blocks of flats and, possibly, other residential buildings.
• Alongside the Association of Finnish Local and Regional Authorities and other administrators of the address system, the Ministry of the Interior should investigate how well the creation and updating of the address system functions. Furthermore, the need for more detailed legislation in addition to the existing instructions should be investigated .