Playing with fire, and child safety

A recent fire at a girls’ hostel in Vijayawada has unveiled alarming safety lapses in Andhra Pradesh’s child care institutions. The blaze exposed the absence of fire safety compliance in more than half of the State’s 740 child care homes. Activists as well as government officers call for urgent inspections and immediate reforms to ensure the safety of vulnerable children, writes Rajulapudi Srinivas

Published - March 08, 2024 07:58 am IST

Officials of the District Child Protection Unit of Women Development and Child Welfare department examining the ground floor room at the Urban Residential Hostel for Girls at Kanuru in Krishna district where fire broke out on the evening of February 29; officials interacting with the inmates as part of their inquiry; and an official of the District Child Protection Unit assessing the damage in the fire.

Officials of the District Child Protection Unit of Women Development and Child Welfare department examining the ground floor room at the Urban Residential Hostel for Girls at Kanuru in Krishna district where fire broke out on the evening of February 29; officials interacting with the inmates as part of their inquiry; and an official of the District Child Protection Unit assessing the damage in the fire. | Photo Credit: RAO GN

On the evening of February 29, the desperate cries of a few students pierced through the quietude at the Urban Residential Hostel for Girls in Vijayawada, Andhra Pradesh. The girls were immersed in studies when they noticed a roaring inferno at a ground floor room of the two-storey building around 8.30 p.m. They hastily evacuated the hostel, their screams echoing through Vinayaka Nagar in Kanuru, a neighbourhood in Vijayawada, and prompting locals to rush to their aid.

“Thick smoke had filled the room in which fire started. We were all panicking,” recalls Chinnari, a PG student staying at the hostel. This child care institution (CCI) is run by a voluntary organisation named Vasavya Mahila Mandali in Krishna district. Inmates, referred by the Child Welfare Committees (CWC), are studying from primary classes to post graduation.

A fire tender rushed in from Auto Nagar and doused the flames, averting what could have been a major tragedy. Concerted efforts by the locals and firefighters ensured safe evacuation of all 67 girl students. As the embers of the fire subsided, revealing blackened walls and the remnants of destruction — a burnt computer, melted electric cables, and personal belongings — the glaring absence of fire safety compliance and a valid No-Objection Certificate (NOC) looms ominously.

“The building does not have an NOC from the AP State Disaster Response and Fire Services Department. There were no fire extinguishers at the hostel,” Auto Nagar Station Fire Officer K. Naresh, who led the firemen, had said.

It is not just this particular facility; numerous CCIs across the State, catering to orphans, semi-orphans, trafficked and abused children, victims of child marriage, and other vulnerable cases, fall short on safety standards. Officials from the Juvenile Welfare, Correctional Services, and Welfare of Street Children department, the licensing and monitoring authority, reveal a disconcerting reality — over 50% of the 740 child care homes in Andhra Pradesh lack a fire No-Objection Certificate (NOC) and disregard essential fire safety norms.

Disaster waiting to happen

The State houses 41 Government Bala Sadans, providing shelter for children aged up to five years, and 17 Observation Homes for Boys and Girls, including four government-run children homes. However, a majority of these are yet to obtain the necessary NOC from the Fire department, highlighting a systemic safety concern.

Officers of the Fire, Juvenile Welfare, Education, Revenue, Women Development & Child Welfare (WD&CW) and other departments do not inspect the homes regularly, and the children have to put up with poor facilities and lack of security measures, allege child rights activists. Many of these CCIs do not have proper buildings, drinking water, toilets, playgrounds, sick rooms and medical kits, they say.

Director of Juvenile Welfare, Correctional Services and Welfare of Street Children, B.D.V. Prasad Murthy says 740 CCIs are functioning in A.P., which includes privately run ones, but a majority do not have fire safety compliance. “On the other hand, all 70 of our government-run children homes have NOC from Fire department,” he maintains.

Murthy says the government has not renewed licence of the Urban Residential Hostel for Girls where the fire broke out, since two years. The staff, who inspected the girls hostel recently, found that it is being funded by Sarva Siksha Abhiyan (SSA).

The government has issued orders to the district Collectors to visit the CCIs, enquire about the facilities and take steps for renewal of licences, which lapsed about two years ago. Circulars would be sent to the CCI managements across the State to obtain fire NOCs immediately, he adds.

A narrow escape

Vasavya Mahila Mandali secretary G. Rashmi says a section of inmates, upon noticing the fire at the Urban Residential Hostel for Girls, switched off power supply, gas pipeline and alerted the fire personnel.

“Some residents of the colony rushed to the hostel and helped the firemen in evacuating the building and in dousing fire,” she adds.

Krishna CWC Members, Chandragiri Radha Kumari, Y. Ravi Bhargav and Ch. Raj Kumar inspected the home. “We interacted with the inmates, warden and the locals, enquired about the mishap. The girls had a narrow escape. The inmates said the locals saved them after breaking the locks on the main gate, Radha Kumari says.

District Child Protection Officer Mounisha, who visited the hostel, expressed shock when she found that the kitchen was housed in the same building, violating safety norms.

Mission Vatsalya (formerly Integrated Child Protection Scheme) staff enquired about the fire accident, reasons for the mishap and recorded the statements of the staff and the students.

Officials of WD&CW, SSA, Juvenile Welfare and the CWC say that the child care home management did not alert the government departments immediately after the fire accident. “We got information through mail after two days of the incident,” Krishna district CWC chairperson K. Suvartha says.

Rashmi, for her part, maintains that information was conveyed to the officials concerned on time.

Suvartha observes that children’s homes should not have kitchens in the same buildings where dormitories were located. The management should provide playgrounds, enough toilets, purified drinking water and maintain hygienic conditions, she points out. “The CWC will soon inspect children homes in the State, enquire about the facilities and insist on obtaining NOC. Notices would be served to the homes not having proper fire safety equipment,” she warns.

Children homes should not run from thatched houses and dilapidated buildings. The home managements should take all precautions for the safety of the children, she adds.

“All child care homes should obtain license from the Fire Services department and arrange fire fighting equipment at multiple locations. Besides, they should display the Police, Fire department, ambulance and other emergency numbers. Complaint boxes are a must in all CCIs,” Suvartha says.

Additional Director of Fire Services, G. Srinivasulu also agrees that a large number of the homes for children, orphans, mentally ill and children with special needs were running without a fire NOC in the State. “We request the managements of the homes to obtain fire NOC from the nearby fire stations. The CCIs should provide fire fighting equipment to prevent any mishaps,” he says.

Fire personnel will visit the homes, give demo to the children and the staff on rescue operations at multi-storey buildings and in operating the fire safety gadgets, he shares, adding, “In a few districts, the children homes have obtained NOC from the AP State Disaster Response and Fire Services department. We request the home managements in all the other districts to take NOCs without any delay and provide protection to the inmates.”

The licensing authority of the children homes should insist on fire NOC, and in the absence of one, it should not issue fresh licenses or renew the old ones, he suggests. CCI managements should follow the school fire safety and evacuation manual and design fire safety plans accordingly.

Safety gadgets and precautions

Children homes should have fire alarms, campaign teams, conduct awareness programmes, complete building map, evacuation plan, search and rescue team, fire fighting and medical teams, the official says.

“The staff should conduct demos with the help of Fire department personnel, arrange sump, overhead tanks, ladder, stretchers and other material in case of an emergency,” Srinivasulu explains.

AP State Commission for Protection of Child Rights chairman K. Appa Rao says that children who were rescued from sexual abuse, child mariage or Protection of Children from Sexual Offences Act cases would be referred to CCIs.

“As the children staying in the homes were key witnesses in some cases pending in courts, the managements should focus on their safety,” Mr. Appa Rao says. The children homes should be accommodated in buildings which have spacious rooms with proper ventilation, and with access to fire tenders. The homes should obtain fire NOC and get the licences renewed from time to time, he explains.

“The staff should be trained in evacuating the children in case of an emergency. The CCI managements should be generous towards the Children in Need of Care and Protection, and provide necessary fire safety gadgets for the ensuing summer to prevent any tragedies,” the SCPCR chairman says.

Officials concerned should focus on hostels being run by the educational institutions across the State. In many hostels, the electric circuits were not being properly maintained and the cables and switch boards were seen hanging from the walls, Appa Rao points out.

Director of Electrical Safety, G. Vijaya Lakshmi says fire accidents can be avoided if proper protective gear and standard equipments are used: “All electricity consumers should use Residual Current Circuit Breakers to prevent electric shocks and fire hazards. The Government of India has made RCCB mandatory in 2023.”

The children homes, schools and hostels should use standard electrical equipment, and have their cables, switch boards and joints checked by licensed electricians,she advises. “As there is heavy load due to continuous use of electrical appliances, the managements should check them to prevent short circuits and accidents,” she says.

Officers of the Directorate of Electrical Safety will visit the homes, verify the structure and the load, and suggest suitable electric equipment and gadgets to avoid accidents, she adds.

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