How many more lives must be lost before fire safety and rescue measures are taken seriously? Last year, 43 people died when fire gutted the fifth and sixth floors of the Stephen Court building in Kolkata. A month before that, a fire accident in a commercial complex in Bangalore claimed nine lives and injured 68. Fire safety rules had been flouted with impunity in both the cases. Now, again in Kolkata, more than 90 lives have been consumed by fire at the Advanced Medicare and Research Institute (AMRI) Hospitals at Dhakuria. This time it was even more heartbreaking — among those suffocated to death were many patients with restricted mobility. Only a few months ago, the fire service department had asked the hospital, a joint venture of two large industrial houses and the West Bengal government, to clear the encroachments in the basement and upgrade its fire safety mechanism. The directive was not followed, and the flammable material stored in the basement has now turned out to be the cause of the horrific accident. In the same hospital, there was a serious fire accident three years ago. Had the government agencies done their duty, and the hospital administrators complied with rules and stepped up their fire safety standards, many precious lives could have been saved.

When five major fire accidents occurred in large hospitals in London between January 2008 and February 2009, nobody died; in fact, not a single case of “significant adverse health affect” was reported. In Northwick Park Hospital, a large district-level health care facility, 123 patients, including the brain injured, were safely evacuated in 23 minutes. Periodic review and testing of the emergency preparedness plans in these hospitals had paid off. Attention to detail such as provision of a ski sheet and a rescue aid placed below the mattress of the hospital bed to smoothly evacuate non-ambulant patients, proved vital. Adopting more regulations but paying scant attention to compliance seems to be the Indian way. What is needed is an uncompromising commitment to safety. The central government's Standing Fire Advisory Council, whose recommendations were last updated in 1998, suggests that the response time — the period between alerting the fire station and the arrival of fire brigade at the accident location — must not be more than three minutes in the case of hazardous areas, and five minutes in others. In the AMRI hospital accident, the inordinate delay in alerting the fire brigade was compounded by the inexplicable response time of more than 15 minutes. The distribution of fire stations and their location within a large and congested city such as Kolkata need to be urgently reviewed. Every second saved and every improvement made will be critical.

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