Mangalore poses a problem for fire services with haphazard construction

In the past fortnight, the city witnessed three minor fires, two in hospitals and one in a crowded commercial complex, while one major fire at a candle factory ravaged it to ashes.

These join a long list of fires tended to by the two stations of the Karnataka State Fire and Emergency Services here. In the past year alone, around 399 fires were attended to, 19 of them medium fires. The loss cumulates to around Rs. 88 lakh, with a further property worth Rs. 8.51 crore being salvaged.

With narrow roads, a hilly terrain and unplanned, often haphazard, construction, Mangalore city poses a problem for fire services. It was due to this that the National Building Code (2005) was tweaked for the region. Although the height for mandatory No-Objection Certificate (NOC) from the Fire and Emergency Services is at 15 metres, for Mangalore, on the recommendation of the Mangalore City Corporation and Mangalore Urban Development Authority, the height has been modified to 10.4 m.

This would allow the department to enforce fire safety regulations on many more buildings than currently mandated. “Low-rises are a big headache. They do not have proper approaches, and usually have only one staircase that is clustered or too narrow,” said S.H. Varadarajan, Chief Fire Officer, Mangalore Region.

Till date, under the old norm of 15 metres, a total of 124 high-rise buildings, factories, apartments, commercial complexes, and others have obtained a NOC – that is, sanctioning for the building based on the building plan before the construction. However, out of the numerous high-rise buildings that dot the Mangalore landscape, only 19 buildings have been given a Clearance Certificate. Shockingly, only one hospital – Indiana Hospital – has a fire compliant certificate from the department.

In here lies the disconnect: the code applies to buildings whose construction started after 2005, while not making an NoC or certificate mandatory for buildings constructed before the implementation of the NBC. Many factories in Baikampady Industrial Estate, including primary industries which burnt down on January 10, are not legally mandated to have a fire safety certificate as they were built before 2005.

Though a protective squad – comprising a Deputy Fire Officer and a leading lineman whose responsibility it will be to recheck the eligibility of buildings with an NoC and to inspect buildings that do not have fire compliance – has been sanctioned, it is yet to be operational, said Mr. Varadarajan.

Apart from fires, the department has been battling with a shortage of staff. According to statistics furnished by the department, out of a sanctioned strength of 94, 48 lie vacant. This is especially magnified when seen the post of firemen, the workhorses of the department, where there is more than 53 per cent vacancies (26 firemen work against the sanctioned strength of 56).

Considering that the department manages inspection, NOC approvals, mock fire drills in high-rise buildings, and fire safety education, the vacancies see the department being stretched.

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