The Carlton Towers fire tragedy in 2010 illustrated the lack of fire protection measures in most buildings in Bengaluru.
I would like to propose the following idea to improve fire safety in Bengaluru – create a set of fire wardens in each of the high-rise buildings who will:
1) Ensure that fire safety norms are not violated, and
2) Be the first responders when there is a fire.
Why Fire Safety
As per the National Crime Records Bureau, 2012, around 4 people in Karnataka lose their lives to fire every day. Around 271 people in Bengaluru alone died due to fire related incidents in 2012 – this is higher than many other cities like Delhi.
There are two sides to fire safety:
b) Fighting the fire
Many fire tragedies could have been prevented. There were fire safety violations in most cases – a) closed doors, b) use of inflammable substances, c) lack of well delineated fire escape routes, d) lack of fire safety awareness.
Post the Carlton Fire tragedy, a PIL was filed by the Beyond Carlton advocacy group – this resulted in the State Government issuing a notification in 2011 under Section 13 of the Karnataka Fire Services Act which focuses on fire prevention in high-rise buildings (that are of 15 metres height or more). The notification states that a NOC from the Fire & Emergency Services Department (Fire Dept) is needed for a new building; and it needs to be renewed every two years. It also lists the penalties for not obtaining the NOC (including non issuance of OC, disconnection of BWSSB and BESCOM connections, etc).
Unfortunately, the inspections of high-rise buildings are still being carried out by the Fire Department – in fact another PIL was filed by the Beyond Carlton group to find out the progress of the inspections. Lack of manpower and the general apathy are the reasons cited for the poor progress.
There are several challenges in Bengaluru when it comes to fighting fires:
• Inadequate number of fire stations – According to a Wilbur Smith report commissioned by the Fire Dept in 2011, Bengaluru needs to have at least 71 fire stations (roughly 1 station every 10 sq.km.). However, we currently have only 20 odd stations.
• According to a Beyond Carlton report, out of 170 Crores budget for the department in 2014-15, around 80% has been spent on administration and personnel costs – very little has been apportioned for costs related to developing the infrastructure or procuring the necessary equipments (including vehicles).
• Bengaluru has only two aerial ladders which can reach a height of around 50 meters – there are over 400 buildings over that height.
• The heavy traffic in Bengaluru invariably prevents most fire engines from reaching the fire in time
Policy – Constitution of Fire Wardens
Fire safety norms are violated for various reasons with some of them being:
– People believe it is expensive to follow the norms
– The belief that the likelihood of a fire is almost nil
– Lack of awareness about fire safety
– There are no stringent consequences for violations (no action is implemented by the government authorities).
To help prevention of fires and protection of lives / property during a fire,the Fire Dept should constitute a Fire Warden Organization(FWO). These FWO members will:
• For a start, carry out periodic audits for fire safety violations in their buildings
• Conduct fire safety awareness sessions for the citizens
• Be the designated Disaster Recovery Personnel (DRP) and help in evacuation during a fire
• Be the first responders during any fire accident and help the firemen during firefighting
Unlike Traffic Wardens, the FWO will not be purely voluntary – every building will need to have a set of designated Fire Wardens(based on the number of people residing in the building). They can be sourced from the RWAs in case of residential complexes. Apart from the mandatory members nominated by residents or RWA’s, there could be volunteers too. The Fire Wardens will go through a Fire Safety Certification process initially and will need to appear for re-certification every two years so that they are adequately prepared to handle various activities during a fire. They will be expected to spend around 2 hours per week in related activities.
To encourage adoption of fire safety standards, incentives are to be provided to these Fire Wardens – reduced property taxes; discounts on water and electricity bills, etc. could be some of them.
The stakeholders who will have to be convinced to adopt this policy include:
• The Fire Dept – the FWO will be part of this department
• Government of Karnataka – a notification is needed to get the RWAs to designate Fire Wardens
• BBMP, BWSSB, BESCOM – to structure incentives
• RWAs, Citizens – getting them onboard would involve a lot of awareness building
Despite the challenges mentioned above, it is time we take Fire Safety seriously in Bengaluru. I believe that having a Fire Warden Organization is a positive step in the direction of creating a safe Bengaluru where each of us can go into any building without worrying about fire safety violations or our lives being endangered.
Gopal Devanahalli is currently the Chief Operating Officer of Manipal Healthcare Enterprises. He has over 22 years of Corporate experience and has worked with Infosys and Kotak in the past. He has been interested in public policy and has recently done a public policy course in The Takshashila Institution. He is a member of the Executive Council of Beyond Carlton. He lives in Bengaluru.