Bengaluru

‘Ten years on, still a long way to go for fire safety’

In remembrance: Music and other programmes were organised as part of ‘Beyond Carlton Memorial 2020 - A Tribute to the 9 Lives Lost’ to mark the 10th anniversary of Carlton Towers fire tragedy, in Bengaluru on Saturday.

In remembrance: Music and other programmes were organised as part of ‘Beyond Carlton Memorial 2020 - A Tribute to the 9 Lives Lost’ to mark the 10th anniversary of Carlton Towers fire tragedy, in Bengaluru on Saturday.  

The responsibility to ensure safety lies not just with government authorities, says Uday Vijayan of Beyond Carlton

Ten years ago, on this day, horrific images of thick black smoke billowing out of a building on HAL Airport Road, as desperate people jumped to death in a bid to escape the suffocation, stunned the city. Prior to that the last big fire tragedy Bengaluru had witnessed was at the Venus Circus in 1981.

The Carlton Towers fire of February 23, 2010 haunts survivors and families of the nine people who lost their lives. Every time a fire accident is reported in the country, they relive the horror. But what came out of the tragedy was the birth of probably the only citizen-led fire safety advocacy group in the country, Beyond Carlton, which, over the years, has become the go-to body for fire-related issues such as compliance.

Uday Vijayan, who lost his 23-year-old son in the tragedy, is the managing trustee of the fire advocacy group. “We set two objectives that haven’t changed in 10 years, one of which is making authorities more accountable. Carlton was a failure of the system: there was no inspection, fire emergency vehicles could not reach, maintenance of the building ... everything that had to go wrong went wrong. Second is coordination between different agencies — Fire and Emergency Services Department, traffic police, the building association, etc.,” he said.

A February 23, 2010 photo of smoke billowing out of Carlton Towers on HAL Airport Road.

A February 23, 2010 photo of smoke billowing out of Carlton Towers on HAL Airport Road.  

Have things changed since the accident? Mr. Vijayan said certain things have. “Our PIL petition resulted in the Fire and Emergency Services Department conducting inspection every two years. The managing committees of high-rise apartments are a lot more accountable now. In the first two months, what we learnt was that most of us don’t know much about fire safety and there was huge apathy. No one wants to believe that we can die in an accident or fire,” he said.

But awareness and the culture of safety still has a long way to go. For instance, Beyond Carlton recently highlighted that only two hospitals in the city have a burns ward.

Rooftop establishments

After another major accident — the Kamala Mills fire in Mumbai in 2017, Beyond Carlton raised the issue of fire risks in rooftop establishments in the city. This was followed by a crackdown by the Fire and Emergency Services Department and the police on establishments flouting fire safety rules. “Local bodies such as I Change Indiranagar were active and so we got involved with them,” he said.

Going forward

Going forward, Beyond Carlton wants to see that nobody dies in a fire accident. But, it is a long journey, admitted Mr. Vijayan. “It is not a realistic goal to set it for the next five or 10 years. A fire accident could happen anywhere. In Bengaluru, for example, we hadn’t anticipated the city’s growth, and we are grossly under capacity to handle fire safety. When you can provide water and electricity to a new layout, why not a fire station, like a park? The government has land,” he said.

But the group also maintains that the responsibility lies not just with government authorities.

“There is very little time to escape a fire. In a high-rise building, for example, the internal system has to work. There is a larger chance of single ownership properties following the rules. The problem is with multi-tenanted and commercial establishments; Carlton was a similar case. There are more people involved in decision making, and fire safety is a continuous and expensive process,” he said.

Through its ‘I am a fire champ’ series, Beyond Carlton has been learning about positive steps being taken by individuals and communities. Among them is Yashve, a 9-year-old from Chennai. “We have conducted fire drills in school. We also have a fire extinguisher in the house and my mom has taught me how to use it,” she said.

Fire safety committee yet to take off

Coordination among different agencies has been a sore point in fire safety, but a committee that was promised to look into it is yet to take off. Members of Beyond Carlton have pointed out that all stakeholders — BBMP, Bescom, CREDAI, along with the fire advocacy group, were to be part of the fire safety committee. “A Government Order was also issued in 2018, but it is sadly yet to work out,” said members of Beyond Carlton.

Beyond Carlton had released a five-year fire safety blueprint for Bengaluru in consultation with the Karnataka Fire and Emergency Services Department in 2018, which has a five-year roadmap from 2018 to 2022. Among its key recommendations are introducing a retrofit policy for older buildings, linking property tax payment and fire no-objection certificates, introducing a public-private partnership policy for private agencies to partner for new fire stations and monitoring, making burns wards compulsory in well-equipped hospitals, and developing protocols for inter-agency coordination. The plan also pushes for adoption of technology in a big way, including a tech upgrade that enables fire truck screens to see building plans.

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Printable version | Apr 4, 2020 4:51:01 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/news/cities/bangalore/ten-years-on-still-a-long-way-to-go-for-fire-safety/article30892557.ece

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