Infernal infernos: On hospital fires amid the pandemic

As hospital fires are on the rise alongside a pandemic, Maharashtra must act on safety

Updated - April 24, 2021 12:51 am IST

Published - April 24, 2021 12:02 am IST

Maharashtra has been facing the merciless onslaught of COVID-19 cases, but its public health response has also had to combat a second, connected scourge of hospital fires. In recent days, the State has been adding, on average, over 60,000 cases and losing a few hundred lives daily in the second wave of the pandemic, straining its infrastructure and institutions. It is also frequently hit by deadly fires, of the kind witnessed on Friday in the ICU of a small hospital in Mumbai’s suburb of Virar, where at least 15 patients severely ill with the coronavirus died . With about seven lakh active cases now, many of the patients in the State require oxygen support and hospitals are stretched to the limit. Many are small institutions, while a number of facilities are simply not built for purpose, such as the hospital located in a mall in Mumbai’s Bhandup area where several lives were lost in a blaze last month. Now that many COVID-19 hospital fires have been reported during the first peak of the pandemic last year and later, in Maharashtra, Gujarat and Andhra Pradesh in particular, State authorities should be able to document their learnings and put out a checklist to save patients. They should clarify whether fire safety guidelines for hospitals issued by the Centre in September last year, prioritising a strict compliance strategy, third party accreditation on safety, and adoption of a fire response plan were acted upon. This is particularly important in Maharashtra’s context, given that devastating fires have been recurring, and Chief Minister Uddhav Thackeray should lose no time in ordering a comprehensive audit.

With no end in sight to serious hospital fires, there may be a case for judicial oversight and systematic inquiries into such mishaps. COVID-19 has turned into a conflagration, and the Supreme Court has taken suo motu cognisance of many aspects of pandemic management, such as availability of oxygen and essential drugs, method and manner of vaccination, and declaration of lockdowns. Nearly 10 High Courts have taken up pressing matters pertaining to COVID-19. It would be logical to add fire safety to such scrutiny, to make accidents rare. Evidently, State bureaucracies can achieve a lot more on their own, if they diligently implement existing regulations. There is a professional knowledge base available with important features. It calls for ICUs to be equipped with an exhaust system to prevent smoke accumulation in a fire, ventilation cut-outs to stop a blaze from spreading, periodic maintenance of safety equipment and, very importantly, an evacuation plan for the sickest patients, who may be attached to life-saving equipment. It is undoubtedly complicated to retrofit poorly designed hospitals for high safety standards, especially when it has to be executed on the go, and every bed is precious in the pandemic. But as each successive blaze proves, business as usual may extract a heavy price. Patients should be able to go to a hospital without the fear of fires threatening their lives there.


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