Kolkata’s deadly fires show that fire fighting and rescue services in cities are in poor shape. Each year, some 20,000 people perish. Yet, the law does not crack down on building rule violators. Slums face high risk and need special safety measures.
People die and property is lost in fires with depressing regularity. In the five years till 2011, about 20,000 have died every year in fires. Such tragic losses could have been avoided, had builders complied with regulations and the state improved its rescue services. The spate of recent accidents in Kolkata yet again poses the question: how many more lives have to be lost before we take safety issues seriously?
The state of fire fighting and rescue services in cities is abysmally poor. As per Standing Fire Advisory Council norms, the country needs 70,868 fire stations, but on ground there are only 1,705. There is a 96 per cent shortage in the number of fire fighting personnel required and 80 per cent in the number of fire fighting and rescue vehicles needed for emergency operations. This huge shortfall has seriously affected the delivery of fire safety services.
The nature of fire is that it exponentially grows with time and quickly reaches the flashover stage, the point where it turns lethal. Fire fighters have to reach the accident spot before this happens. The response time — the time between receiving the alarm call and fire personnel reaching the spot — has to be less than five minutes. However, in Indian cities, the response time invariably exceeds the acceptable norms.
One way to reduce the response time, and thus the damage, is to follow what a study in Nanjing, China, demonstrated. Poor distribution of fire stations in Nanjing led to an unacceptable response time of 14 minutes. Research showed that by strategically adding 14 more stations, the response time could be brought down to eight minutes, a reduction that would make a substantial difference to rescue efforts.
To improve fire-fighting infrastructure, the State governments put together a Rs. 19,000-crore proposal during the Eleventh Five Year Plan. But the Ministry of Home Affairs scaled it down to Rs. 5,670 crore, and the Planning Commission eventually allotted a paltry Rs. 200 crore.
Another important factor that seriously undermines fire fighting is non-compliance with building rules. The National Building Code (NBC) has prescribed detailed specifications for various types of buildings and their use. It mandates installation of smoke detectors, sprinkler systems, alarms and extinguishers in vulnerable buildings. These measures would delay the spread of fire and provide precious time for evacuation. In addition to the NBC norms, local bodies stipulate regulations, such as side open space and road widths, to facilitate rescue operations. But these rules are often followed in the breach.
In Mumbai, as recent news reports show, eight out of 10 high-rises do not comply with fire safety measures. In Chennai, more than 6,000 buildings have breached fire safety norms. Encroachments in the basement and inflammable material stored turned out to be the cause of the AMRI Hospital fire in Kolkata.
At present, the Fire Service Department emphasises only scrutiny of buildings prior to occupation. But it does not conduct periodic post-occupancy inspections, allowing building owners to flout norms. But officials blame the situation on gaping holes in the existing legislation and poor enforcement of rules by the local bodies. This is only partly true. Many State-level Fire Acts impose a mere Rs. 500 in fine for failure to implement preventive measures. This low penalty has not been an effective deterrent. But the fact remains that the existing laws overlook the need to tie up annual inspection with the renewal of trade licence, which could ensure better enforcement.
If the problem with the new buildings is that of non-compliance, old buildings pose a different set of safety issues. Poor infrastructure in old parts of the city has resulted in unsafe electrical wiring and poor water supply. This combined with ad hoc additions and storage of easily inflammable material makes old buildings more hazard-prone. Narrow streets leading to these buildings add to their woes.
Old buildings seldom have fire detection or prevention measures, and building norms, too, do not insist on them. Retrofitting them by replacing hazardous elements with high fire-performance materials, installing preventive systems such as water mist fire suppression system that will cover and protect the building with a fine spray of micro water droplets during a fire, and alarms and smoke detectors are needed. The challenge in such projects would be to strike a balance between safety issues and preserving architectural character. Cities, too, need special equipment and vehicles that can navigate narrow streets to service such structures.
Every time a fire disaster befalls, as it did in Dabwali or Kumbakonam that killed more than 400 persons and 90 children, there was uproar over the pathetic safety measures. Public interest litigation petitions to review safety measures followed. On their part, courts issued guidelines and directed the governments to improve the situation. But nothing seems to have changed. If the government is serious about fire safety, it needs to pursue a zero tolerance policy towards compliance and make fire fighting a top priority.