Over 6,000 buildings violate fire safety norms; despite notices served, they continue to operate
More than 6,000 buildings in the city have seriously breached fire safety norms, putting lives of their occupants and users in danger. Even after a year since the Tamil Nadu Fire Rescue Services (TNFRS) served notices on them, they are yet to comply with safety rules and continue to function with impunity.
A recent survey by the TNFRS of special and multi-storeyed buildings in select streets of Kodambakkam has shown that conditions have not improved.
Fine only Rs. 500
Officials say they are not in a position to prosecute the building owners because they are not empowered to do so, and all they can do is impose a fine of Rs. 500 and hope no fatal fire accidents occur.
When fire inspectors visited a popular multiplex in the centre of the city, they found that the smoke detectors were not working. On inspection, they noticed that the detectors were covered with a cardboard sheet, since they kept setting off an alarm when popcorn was fried.
In the same building, which has about 2,000 sq.m. of built up area in each floor, there are not enough staircases and none of the existing staircases take people directly outside to safety. This theatre is a potential danger, remarked the official.
In a mall with cinema theatres, the sprinklers did not function when a fire broke out recently. While investigating it, officials found that the valve that regulated water to the sprinklers was never turned on.
In another case, a well-known hospital in north Chennai accommodated patients in the basement and encroached upon open spaces on the side — a nightmare situation for fire services and rescue personnel.
Schools as bad
School buildings are no better. Many of them, which started as small buildings with only two floors, have illegally added more floors to become now multi-storeyed structures. Most of them do not have the mandatory open spaces necessary for evacuation, nor do they have fire safety equipment. The TNRFS also found that schools did not have personnel trained in fire safety drills.
The recent survey in Kodambakkam found many buildings – special and multi-storeyed – lacking in fire measures such as fire dampeners, automatic sprinkler systems, fire pumps and exclusive water storage areas for fire fighting as mandated by the norms. This is the second such survey, following a detailed inspection of the T. Nagar area, where the TNFRS had reported violations that were more serious.
The only way to improve enforcement and safety is to have zero tolerance towards non-compliance of fire safety measures, say officials.
There is no provision for enforcement, except the cancellation of trade licenses annually renewed by the Corporation. However, the Corporation does not insist or check for fire safety provisions while renewing the license, they complained.
It has been more than three years since TNFRS submitted amendments to the Fire safety Act for the government’s approval. So far, nothing has happened in this regard.
Government sources said that an increase in the fine amount has been recommended – from Rs. 500 to Rs. 5000. Even this appears to be too little, when compared to the fine amount of Rs. 5 lakh proposed in West Bengal and Rs. 1 lakh in Chandigarh.
The government has to declare the violation of fire safety norms a criminal offense and they have to be dealt with under the Indian Penal Code, if it is serious about improving compliance and protecting lives, said a government expert.