Fire Champion: Sumit

After 4.30 pm on 23 February 2010, the lives of family members of 9 people changed forever. The Carlton Towers fire in Bangalore claimed someone’s son, someone’s spouse, someone’s someone else – and life after that felt shattered to those who lost them. After the accident, these families pass the Carlton Towers quite often, and around it there seems to be a constant sound of silence, a silence that questions.

Had the inbuilt fire protection system in the building been working, and had fire exit doors been open, evacuation would have been easier. Those 9 individuals would be alive today. Post the accident, there were two options left before the family members: they could either forget the incident, or do something to change the unpredictable fate of others.

Soon after the tragedy, the families decided to get together and form a charitable group called Beyond Carlton – composed of not only the grieving, but also survivors. Not only have they come together to honor their memory, but they want justice to be served and greater awareness brought about on fire safety.

Beyond Carlton then submitted a Public Interest Litigation (PIL) in the High Court of Karnataka. Only one answer was sought – what’s the government doing to prevent fire accidents from happening? The battle was not easy: neither on the government advocacy front, nor on the

criminal negligence front. While the criminal case is still running, the notification helped in giving the necessary push towards the issue of new directions and laws. This has also helped the Authorities Having Jurisdiction (AHJs) of Karnataka to better implement the National Building Code of India.

While the formal submission process for the PIL was on, an independent committee was formed on behalf of the government to investigate the Carlton Towers fire. I was then a Project Engineer and Reviewer of fire production product categories with Underwriters Laboratories, and was made one of the committee members. The findings of the report aimed to point out measures that could have been taken prior to the accident.

Simple precautions could have prevented the spread of toxic fumes to all the floors, helped in basic fire fighting from within the building and in safe evacuation of occupants. Things like fire-rated openings in inspection panels of electrical shafts (which burned in under 10 minutes and allowed smoke build-up),  having fire-stop barriers on all the floors, a functional smoke alarm system, a fire protection system, unlocked hose boxes, cabins on corridors, unlocked exits etc. could have proved to be life-saving.

With the help of committee’s report and the PIL, efforts from Beyond Carlton resulted in the High Court directing the State Government to issue an appropriate notification under section 13 of Karnataka Fire Services Act, 1964, for preventive measures for buildings 15 meters & above in height. The laws have now become stricter, and any violation could end up making the owner face legal complications. Beyond Carlton then approached me to support their cause from a technical perspective as a citizen of Bangalore.

What’s interesting here is the fact that none of the grieving kin knew much about fire safety. What they did believe was in change. So if you demand the safety of your self and that of others, change can happen. Channeling their grief into positive energy, especially after a rude and tragic awakening, takes a lot of gut from within. The daunting task of changing state fire laws was not easy, considering the fact that life’s got to move on and responsibilities come down heavier than before.

Post the PIL, implementation challenges surfaced. The state fire authorities were ordered to finish building inspections of all high rises in the state to check for fire protection systems. They say we cannot overcome government attitude, redundant policies and red tape in a jiffy, but while trying to overcome these, we can learn to insist on greater fire safety measures in our daily lives. Be it your workplace, your home, the malls you visit, the hotels you stay in or the schools your kids go to. The efficacy of sprinklers and other components of fire protection system can be increased simply by maintaining them! Irrespective of your familiarity with a subject like fire, if you want to save lives, you can. And that’s what Beyond Carlton is trying to do.

If you are a fire champion or know of one, write in!

Sumit Khanna

Apart from his current role in international codes & standards at FM Global, Sumit works with Beyond Carlton as a responsible citizen of Bangalore. He supports the team on technical matters in larger public campaigns. Sumit is a Fire Champ, and we want to create more.

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