Parents or authorities: Who is to blame for balcony deaths?

As Abu Dhabi and Sharjah regulatory authorities tighten the rules on balcony and window safety standards, parents are split on where the responsibility finally lies

When I was seven-years-old, all it took was a single complaint from the neighbourhood shopkeeper to have my father ring around the carpenter to set up a guardrail atop the balcony ledge and put a brake on my dangling adventures from our fourth floor apartment.

However, as skyscrapers grew vertically in the passing decades that transformed the UAE landscape, safety concerns from such dizzying heights only came into play as late as 2011 when a spate of accidents occurred that saw children fall from balconies and windows to their deaths.

In the past few weeks, the Abu Dhabi Municipal Affairs Department issued a resolution that stated all residential apartments install resistance locks so that the windows cannot open more than 10cms.

The decision stipulates that all owners and contractors of the residential buildings will have to provide appropriate and adopted specifications for all windows and doors leading to balconies in apartments to prevent fall of children and persons with disabilities.

Earlier, Sharjah Municipality also revised building regulations to enhance safety standards, which requires all residential buildings - including old ones - should have safety locks for windows and railings for balconies should be a minimum 120cm in height.

But the questions that still remain in the minds of many concerned parents is that are these precautions enough and ultimately, whose responsibility is it to ensure the safety of young children in their homes?

"It is an unfortunate tragedy that we have witnessed so many balcony and window deaths in the past one year alone," said Mahalaxmi Iyengar, a 15th floor Jumeirah Lake Towers resident and a mother of a six-year-old boy. "But you can't really blame any one party here. Accidents happen; it's a fact of life.

Iyengar's neighbourhood has witnessed its own tragedy last December with the deaths of a five-year-old boy and his mother from the balcony of the MAG 214 high-rise where a 33-year-old Iranian mother plunged to her death after losing her five-year-old from the 8th floor.

Iyengar added: "In most instances, the kids were too young to understand the gamut of their actions."

While the mother welcomes the laws that are putting pressure on landlords and tenants to comply with safety rules, the young mother also admits that ultimately, the responsibility is that of the parents.

"As parents, we have to keep an eye on our kids and ensure they are safe; and if we can't be there all the time, then we hire someone who can fill in those gaps," she said.

Jason Russell, who lives in a Dubai Marina building on the 27th floor with his two children, both below 10 years, took a similar stance, saying: "It is a welcome relief that authorities are finally waking up to this menace and bringing in the safety measures that many times parents overlook.

"However, as a parent, it is also my responsibility to ensure the home is child proof in every which way. Accidents happen all time - be it falling off the bed or down the stairs.

"My wife and I have put the fear of God in our kids that has ensured so far that they will not step onto the balcony un-chaperoned. But we also regularly sit down with them and take the time to explain why it is unsafe to do so.

Russell says that he and his wife have weekly chats with the kids to let them know about the dangers that can occur around the home, along with the reality that should something happen, "they might never see mommy and daddy again."

However, not everyone thinks the responsibility soles likes with the parents or caregivers at home.

"While I welcome the precautionary move by the authorities, it is really a case of shutting the barn door after the horse has bolted," said Ali Mohsin, a father of four in who resides in Al Buhaira Corniche locality of Sharjah.

"These were precautions that should have been taken when these architectural juggernauts were being constructed in the first place. Had that been the case, we wouldn't have seen so many lives lost to such senseless tragedies that could have been averted."

Like Mohsin, Niharika Joshi who resides in Bur Dubai agrees, saying: "As parents, I understand that the final responsibility is ours; but as a mother of two, I can't always be vigilant over things that should be taken into consideration by authorities right from the construction phase.

"I don't know if it's a case of cost cutting or just not planning ahead, but just because we are parents, we can't be held responsible of everything that goes wrong. We are humans too and we can make mistakes. The cost of that should not lead up to endangering the lives of our children."

Meanwhile, owners of buildings have six months to implement the new criteria from date of the issuance of the decision, which is expected to follow by a municipality inspection of houses to make sure that new regulations are being implemented.

According to the resolution, a tenant can lodge a complaint with the concerned authorities if the owner doesn't respond to his request and implement the new criteria.

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