Tuesday 14 May 2013

Lacking in fire safety

The recent fire tragedy in a fashion factory on the outskirts of Dhaka in Bangladesh in which more than a thousand people were killed have once again focused attention on the lax and often negligent attitude we have towards fore safety norms.
India has seen several fire tragedies and one of the worst examples of an apathetic bureaucracy and total disregard for fire safety norms was the fire that raged in a cinema hall in Delhi several years ago.
Bangalore too is not immune to fire mishaps. One of the most fire accidents was the Venus Circus tragedy and more recently the fire in Carlton Building on old Airport road.  Eve after the Carlton building incident in which none persons were killed and several injured, the powers to be seem to be in deep slumber and they have not taken more effective steps to strengthen fire safety norms and tighten the existing rules and regulations.
A recent survey by several agencies, including Bangalore Electricity Supply Company (BESCOM) and the Department of Fire and Emergency Services have revealed that 70 per cent of the buildings in Bangalore are not fire-proof. What is more shocking is that hundreds of such buildings pose a higher fire hazard as they are located on and around congested roads. Thereby effectively  preventing fire force personnel and fire engines and rescue equipments and vehicles from reaching them.
Internal investigations into fire mishaps by BESCOM and the department has revealed that at least 90 per cent of fire accidents in Bangalore was entirely due to the negligence by building owners and their callous attitude towards fire safety.
The department statistics show that in Bangalore alone 825 fire accidents were reported during 2009-10 and 895 during 2010-11. Besides, 2,405 fire accidents — small, medium and serious — were reported between March 2008 and March 2011 and property worth over Rs. 15.89 crore destroyed. The department says that at least 60 per cent of these accidents were due to electric short-circuits.
The main reason for electric malfunction is the use of sub-standard or/and low quality and non-fore and shock proof materials and equipment. Duplicate and sub-substandard electrical cables, unimaginatively placed electric ducts and non-use of circuit breakers and good quality fuses were the main reasons for fire in houses.
In case of commercial and business establishments, fire mishap is mainly due to lack of proper and fool proof storage/disposal of inflammable materials, illegal tapping of power and heavy overdrawal of power beyond the sanctioned capacity and unnecessary material storage are the main reasons.
The department accepts that all building, whether residential and commercial should have sufficient measures to prevent fire accidents.
The department has found that over half the high-rise buildings and they include both commercial and residential do not comply with fire safety regulations. At the latest count, the city had more than 22,000 high-rise buildings. The BBMP defines high rise as any building which is more than 15 metres in height. Shockingly, many of them violate the national building code, which is mandatory for bigger buildings which house or cater to large populace. Scores of multi-stories and high rise buildings have been built without the fire department’s approval.
With the civic body-Bruhat Bangalore Mahanagara Palike-approving at least a hundred high rise buildings every year, the department has its task cut out. It has limited powers to inspect building and withhold sanction. One way to get over this problem is to make building owners obtain sanction from the fire department before commencing with the building and after completing it. However, this is rarely followed and the result is that the buildings come up in all sports of places-from rocky places, abandoned quarried and even slums and narrow roads-leaving the department with no vehicle to fight the fires.
Infact, in most of the fire accidents, the foremost challenge faced by firefighters is inaccessibility of the building, narrowness of the roads and heavy traffic.
This fact has been proved when the department engaged Wilbur Smith Associates to evaluate fire hazard response and mitigation plans in Bangalore.
The company classified eight BBMP wards in Bangalore City limits as ‘very high risk’ zones, posing a threat to the safety of citizens in the core region.
The company said the ‘very high risk zones’ are mainly located in dense residential, commercial and defence establishment areas such as Richmond Town, Malleswaram, Baiyyappanahalli, Peenya, C V Raman Nagar and Byatara­yanapura.
The report also classifies twelve areas as ‘high risk,’  ten areas as ‘medium’ and nine areas as ‘low risk’ zones.
The report is mainly based on two criteria: availability of fire station in the vicinity and the population. It says Bangalore needs 79 fore stations but Bangalore has 14. Six new stations have already been sanctioned but even when they are commissioned the deficit is 59.
And what about fire safety norms for petes and old areas such as City Market, Chickpet, Balepet, Avenue Road, Thargurper, Ranasinghpet. Mamulpet. The roads here are so narrow and the houses and business establishments are located so close to one another that one fire could ignite a major conflagration.  
Coming back to high-rise buildings in Bangalore, of the 20,000 highrises, at least 40 per cent of the, do not possess even a fire extinguisher or any other basic fire fighting equipment.  
Except for Bangalore and Hubli, other cities in the State do not have special equipment to manage fire-accidents in high-rise buildings. This statistics is not given by the department but by the State Government itself according to the report for the year ending March 31, 2011, tabled in the just-concluded legislature session.
The CAG too has come down heavily on lax fire safety norms.
It says even two years after the Mangalore aircraft crash, the Department had neither finalised a standing operating procedure for air crash accidents nor conceived specialised training for search and rescue operations in such situations.
It says the department is yet to take steps to fill 40 per cent vacancies as of December 2011.

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