For most of us, the line ‘No one was killed’ that appears in any report on a fire mishap is very comforting. But think about it – and the false sense of complacency it lulls us, and thereby the governing authorities, into.
The recent fire at the silk market in T Nagar in Chennai is a classic example. ‘No casualty, mercifully. But the losses, as appearing in some media reports, is a whopping Rs 420 crore. This – only the value of the damaged goods and other ‘direct losses’. For starters, even if we took the average cost of a silk saree to be Rs.1000 , dear women readers, we just watched the 40 lakh silk sarees turn into ashes. Put another way, it is a square meal that could have fed 1.3 crore people for a day, even assuming Rs 150 for a person’s meal.
But the deeper question is – is ‘loss’ in a fire or a mishap, only property loss? What about what happens to business-owners and their families whose sole source of income came from that shop and trade? How about the loss to the community? What about the impact on the environment due to not only pollution from fire but also the debris created after the fire? What about the image of T-Nagar as a key commercial area? Lives might have been saved but were we able to save livelihood?
Could the Chennai fire have been prevented – The answer is an emphatic yes. Here are a few points to consider:
1.The working fire protection system such as in this building would not have been cost the owners 1% of the loss incurred. Various media from Tamil Nadu have reported that there were more than 100 tankers summoned to the spot that supplied water to douse the fire. Assuming 4000 liters in one tank, we can assume that the fire engines therefore landed up spraying more than 4 lakh liter of water from outside, so much so that the building itself collapsed
- An automatic sprinkler system (little firefighter hanging from ceiling waiting to throw water on seat of fire and each covering approx. 10 sq m area and spread throughout the area to give full coverage from inside of the building) for such building would have operated 3-5 sprinklers to control the fire to one limited area, with a few hundred liters of water controlling the fire. The little firefighters inside the buildings (automatic sprinklers) can do wonders provided you maintain them and give them water. They are even more very useful in such cases where the streets are narrow and fire engines take time to come and throw first drop of water from outside and that too not on the seat of fire. This disaster could have been averted and it could have been minor fire with no news even in media.
Is there something we can learn from this unfortunate incident for the other buildings abutting on the same street? Do we want to let them be sitting ducks for another such accident, God-forbid? Tamil Nadu as per record of Tamil Nadu Fire & Rescue Service statistics received 25,897 fire calls in 2016 of which more than 600 were for ‘medium’ to ‘serious’ fire calls. As the Fire Service reports the number of fire engine turnout is more. Adherence to three pillars of National Building Code, 2016 – Fire Prevention, Life Safety and Fire Protection can help in preventing such disasters. And an investment into correctly designed, installed and maintained fire protection system (automatic sprinklers) can avert the disaster and we can save the national losses from fire which are most times not seen or reported. The societal cost of fire is far larger than just property damage and hence we have more obligations in saving such losses.
Sumit Khanna is a member of the Executive council of Beyond Carlton. India’s first citizen-initiative to make people fire-aware and prevent fire tragedies.