Aguirre reverses De Lima, lets BFP enforce fire laws in ecozones

MANILA, Philippines – Justice Secretary Vitaliano Aguirre II reversed a 2014 opinion issued by his predecessor, detained Senator Leila de Lima, which gave the Philippine Economic Zone Authority (PEZA) the power to enforce fire laws within economic zones, including casinos.

In a 4-page legal opinion signed on Tuesday, June 6, Aguirre reiterated it should be the Bureau of Fire Protection (BFP) which should conduct inspections and ensure the compliance of establishments with the Revised Fire Code of 2008.

Aguirre earlier implicated De Lima on issues of accountability in the attack on Resorts World Manila Casino, saying her 2014 legal opinion gave PEZA the authority to enforce fire laws that covered the casino, even though it was not the competent body to do so.

In a press conference on Wednesday, June 7, Aguirre cited statements from the police who said the fire exit was only "a few meters away" from the door of the high rollers room where most of the people died. They were stuck and died from smoke suffocation.

"Ang ibig sabihin nito, gawa na hindi makita ng mga biktima any signs showing na nandoon yung exit. Nanatili na lang sila sa CR at high rollers room, despite the fact na sana, puwede silang tumakas," Aguirre said.

(What this means is that the victims did not see signs which should have led them to the exit. They stayed inside the bathroom and the high rollers room, despite the fact that they could have escaped," Aguirre said.

Aguirre said that proper signage could have been ensured by the BFP. 

"Ang parang nakikita ko dito, since ang naging enforcement authority nito ay PEZA, na wala namang kakayahan, walang expertise, walang experience sa pagpapatupad ng fire safety regulations sa ating bansa, yun ang naging bunga nung maling opinion na ginawa ni Sec. De Lima noong 2014," Aguirre said.

(What I'm seeing here is that because PEZA became the enforcement authority, and they had no capability, no expertise, no experience in implementing fire safety regulations in our country, that was the result of a wrong opinion by De Lima in 2014.) (READ: Resorts World sprinklers worked but were not enough, says BFP)

Legal opinion

Addressed to PEZA Director General BGen. Charito Plaza, Aguirre said that while PEZA can "promulgate rules within the ecozones, the same must conform to and be consistent with the provisions of the Fire Code and its Implementing Rules and Regulations (IRR)."

The legal opinion was issued by Aguirre upon the request of Plaza, who wanted to enter into an agreement with the BFP to resolve the issues.

De Lima, for her part, said she merely upheld the Special Economic Zone Act or RA 7916 when she issued the legal opinion in 2014. It reiterated PEZA's jurisdiction over PEZA-registered establishments in terms of implementing the National Building Code and the Fire Code.

According to Aguirre now, however, RA 9176 gave PEZA the power only to establish the internal security and firefighting forces of ecozones. The same law, Aguirre said, directs PEZA to "adopt the Fire Code of the Philippines and its implementing rules and regulations." (READ: Resorts World attack: 4 questions that beg for an answer)

Aguirre also pointed out that RA 9176 was enacted in 1995, while the Fire Code was amended in 2008 and came to be known as the Revised Fire Code of the Philippines. Under it, the enforcement of the Fire Code in ecozones remains to be the sole responsibility of the BFP.

Aguirre said that because of the principle of the later law, the 2008 Fire Code should have been superior to RA 9176 when it came to conflicting provisions. Thus, the Fire Code's directive to let BFP handle all fire enforcement should have been followed all along.

De Lima's possible liability because of her legal opinion was included by Aguirre in the probe he tasked the National Bureau of Investigation (NBI) to conduct. –