A fire at a restaurant in Mumbai’s Kamala Mills Thursday night claimed 14 lives. Lack of fire escape routes in buildings and mock fire drills are common in most Indian cities.
The manner in which Shahjahanabad is laid out, there are urban villages which are unplanned, unorganised sections of our settlements. These are places where the road-width is so small that even a fire tender may not go in. In Delhi, urban chic places such as Hauz Khas Village, Shahpur Jat are firetraps.
The fire rescue has to be motorcycle-based in these places because even four-wheelers may not reach.
The width of our streets, the width of corridors, the fire escapes, the elevators and the means of escape are all part of the problem. In most cases, it is not even clear where the fire escape is and what the route to the fire exit is. The route is often filled with waste materials, debris, containers and other combustible material lying all over the place.
In other words, the fire escape and fire rescue routes are blocked. They are not available for the user when it is critically needed. The fire exit is often locked, the key is with a security guard who has stepped out for some time or something like that.
There are no fire drills, no exercises and no mock training programmes where the general public is made aware of what to do and how to behave in case of fire.
Many years ago, there was a big fire at a five-star hotel (J. P. Hotel) in upscale Vasant Vihar. So many people died. But the Japanese and Americans guests at the hotel survived. Why? Because they put wet towels under the doors so that no smoke enters their rooms. They put wet handkerchiefs on their faces and lay on floor, and the smoke moved up. Most deaths are caused because of smoke, not fire. All the Indians in the building jumped out of their windows and died. The critical difference has to do with training.
This is an attitude problem of ours. Notions of safety, security and quality are not built into us from school level. We don’t get basic first aid training. Our cultural attitude is one of “chalta hai” and we think the next building will catch fire, not ours. It will happen to somebody else not me.
There are clear laws that exist on paper, on fire codes, fire bylaws, fire staircases, width of staircases, fireman’s elevator.
Nine of ten times, the cause of fire is short circuit. Often, it means electrical wiring is of a lesser load-carrying capacity and we have overloaded it. This again is an attitude problem.
The buildings have to be planned, designed and detailed to be fire safe. There have to be fire audits of each of the buildings every six months, or at least once in a year. But this never happens in our country. There has to be a safety officer who sits in a room with CCTV monitors, sprinkler systems, fire alarm systems, fire extinguishers. Often people are not trained how to use the fire extinguisher, and which one to use when. These have to be maintained regularly, but you find that the building has not renewed the maintenance service contract in time. The weakest link in the chain is often the security guard who is untrained or unavailable or just not equipped well.
We have national building codes, local building bylaws, national electrical codes. But they are never implemented or enforced because of systemic problems. You may claim you have a building which is of “A class” construction, but the fire inspectors do not come to check and verify it. They will just certify it based on your claim and issue what is called the Fire NOC.
Most facades of our office buildings are glass and aluminium cladding. Now, after the Dubai fire, many buildings in Gurugram are changing the facades. The aluminium cladding on the walls with glass catches fire very fast.
There should be lessons learnt from the fatal fire in Mumbai on Thursday night. We need to start conducting safety audits on our buildings and raise awareness among users of the building. It is not uncommon for people in office buildings to disable smoke alarm systems. We are rule breakers. And nobody checks and maintains these regularly.
Our planned smart cities are all semiconductor-based, relying on sensors and detectors. But there is skill and capacity training for the person who has to read and operate that equipment.
Anil Dewan is a professor of architecture at the School of Planning and Architecture and teaches a course on fire prevention
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