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Fire Fighting in India – High on Risk but Low on Focus

This post is in the context of an interesting speech by Nitin Pai at the Beyond Carlton Annual Day (the link to the speech is at the bottom)

As many of you will recollect, Carlton Tower Bangalore faced a devastating fire in 2010, and nine people lost their lives (with over 70 injured). This again brought into the focus the lack of firefighting security measures and emergency preparedness in many of the structures all around us. Beyond Carlton has been started and supported by family members of some of the victims of the incident. We may find more details on their website.

While Nitin’s speech is extremely informative on the macro pictures, I also wanted to augment it with some of the issues which I have found from my practical experiment/ understanding in the space.

1. Most fires take no more than 5 minutes to be an all-engulfing phenomenon, which essentially gives almost no scope to lack of proper preparation.

2. Even in cities, the minimum time (except for where there are captive fire stations are available) the time taken to reach the place of fire is at least 30 minutes. This is aggravated by the onlookers, and volunteers (who try to help – but are not properly trained).

3. Firefighting is a very risky job, and the injuries/fatalities are almost in the same range as the police. Also it is emotionally far more draining, as in most cases there are victims. However it ranks far lower in the social ranking of the jobs – and it is difficult to get people on board. This is seen in Nitin’s speech too.

4. The Fire NOC (No Objection Certificate) issued by the Fire Department is many times for lifetime, with no on course validation. In Karnataka, this has now been amended to once two years (thanks to efforts by Beyond Carlton and others), but many others states are far behind. As a result, many structures evolve over time without fulfilling the requisite norms (and become more hazardous (Carlton Towers Bangalore, AMRI, and Stephen Court Kolkata has seen many such post facto violations).

5. The National Building Code of India – in many respects is archaic and inconsistent from the Fire Safety perspective. It is almost impossible to build something without violation something in the code, in the process giving scope for discretion.

6. In many cases, especially in public facilities, the safety features are removed for accommodating aesthetics. For example, the sprinklers on the ceilings are covered with false ceilings, or signages are overlaid by banners or promotions.

7. The fire drills are few in numbers, and most cases not taken seriously by the general public. In fact, most feel that there is people and system available to save them in an emergency, but sadly that it is not reality.

8. In the case of megastructures, the internal audits are bypassed and external audits (if any at all) are considered as unavoidable distractions. However, an audit in which I was part of showed up many issues which in the case of an incident will create fire traps with a limited escape:

–         Missing couplings and nozzles (they being made of brass and small in size are easy targets for pilferage)

–         Leaking hoses, leakage in underground pipes, which affects pressure need for reaching up to higher floors

–         Secondary pumps for overhead tanks not under maintenance (why will stop supply of water in case of a primary pump failure)

–         Inadequate space for movement of fire tenders

–         Lack of proper SOP, signage, emergency numbers etc.

–         Firefighting budget is not taken seriously, and attitude is optimized (whereas it should maximize)

Overall, Fire Fighting remains a high risk but low concern area for the whole country, and it needs to change.

We can see Nitin Pai speech here

Dipankar Khasnabish Dipankar Khasnabish has an abiding interest in social work. He has played leadership roles in large residential communities (including the umbrella organization spanning 500 residential entities in Bangalore) and drove sustainable changes in the areas of governance, community connects, solid waste management and electoral awareness. Dipankar also is a key member of Rotary International and had been actively involved in fundraising (including Chairing the Bengaluru Midnight Marathon – BMM, the flagship marathon event for the city and single largest fundraising activity for Rotary in India), integrated village development and education for the underprivileged.  Dipankar is also a key functionary of IIT Kharagpur Alumni association.
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