Norms are not in place because of lack of interest among those who run hospitals

After a fire at the AMRI Hospital in Kolkata in which 90 people died, the government turned its attention to fire safety in public buildings and the need for strict norms for hospitals as well. Fire service departments across the country were directed to collect details about fire-preparedness in public and private hospitals. Efforts were made to develop a dossier of some sort. But norms are not yet in place, largely because of a lack of interest among those who run hospitals.

On April 14, another National Fire Safety Day was observed and the Tamil Nadu Fire and Rescue Services (TNFRS) organised a week-long awareness programme for children. But little else has changed.

A fire in the intensive care unit of the Government Kilpauk Hospital in June last year claimed three lives. Fire Services officials inspected the facility, met the Director of Medical Education and advised modifications to the building. At the Government Stanley Hospital, the hydrant is in disuse as are the fire safety mechanisms installed in the seven-storeyed surgery block.

Neither this building nor the eight-storeyed paediatric block across the road has ramps to transport patients. This is also the case with the nine-storeyed block of the Government Children's Hospital in Egmore. Several months ago, a smoking air-conditioning unit at the children's hospital caused panic among parents whose children were being treated there.

In answer to my query under the Right to Information Act in September 2011, the Fire Service Department stated that government hospitals in the city “were in the process of complying with the fire safety norms”.

Private hospitals have also not complied with these norms. The Fire Service department denied a licence to a private hospital in Tondiarpet for violating fire safety norms. A hospital in Nungambakkam was denied a licence as the basement was used as a storehouse. A corporate hospital was advised to device a plan to address the huge volume of vehicles parked outside its premises. According to a fire service official, this prevented the conducting of a fire drill.

The Fire Service department has identified 118 hospitals in the city for inspection. But even as this is being carried out, the Indian Medical Association has protested that fire service personnel ask for bribes for not installing safety mechanisms.

According to Bhola Nath, Director of Fire and Rescue Services, the decision to inspect private hospitals was taken following a meeting with the government. The team, headed by the divisional fire officer (DFO), will include public works department (PWD) and municipality officials to inspect buildings in the suburbs. In Chennai, the team is led by a Deputy Commissioner of Police, and includes a Chennai Metropolitan Development Authority official, the DFO and a PWD engineer. Anybody not part of this team should not be entertained, he said.

Since TNFRS is only an advisory body without the right to penalise for non-compliance, paying of bribes makes no sense, Mr. Nath said. While multi-storeyed buildings must comply with the National Building Code norms (which don't specify ramps for instance), there are no specific norms for smaller buildings.

The fact remains, that few private hospitals in the city or in the suburbs have complied with fire safety norms. If one hospital has created wards in the basement, another has developed a research wing without adhering to rules to ensure the safety of its employees. “The fire load is so high that in the event of a fire even the best equipment can only do so much,” said S. Vijayasekar, Deputy Director, TNFRS.

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