Up in flames

Written by Garima Pant | Updated: Apr 19 2010, 03:01am hrs
It cant get more damning. The Delhi Fire Service failed to arrive on time in 77% cases of fire, in three months studied in 2009-10, says the 2010 report by the Comptroller and Auditor General of India (CAG). Of the 3,950 distress calls, it took five minutes to reach in 918 cases, and in 560 cases, it took more than 15 minutes. The loss to lives and property is not stated.

For the Delhi Fire Service (DFS) Department, it has been a tough time recently. With more than one major fire being reported in the city every day with the onset of summer, the ongoing fire safety week, held across the country, couldnt be better timed.

Its not just Delhi having its tryst with this destructive element of nature. Fire broke out in an oil factory in Thane early this week, 34 people lost their lives in a fire at Kolkatas Stephen Court last month, three people were killed as fire gutted a garment factory in Santa Cruz in Mumbai last week and a heritage house was reduced to ashes in Margao, Goa. These are not isolated instances. There have been many more such incidents of fire that raged across the country, bringing into focus the gross irregularities in construction practices and lack of basic fire-fighting measures.

Tragically, its nothing new for Indian cities. Had proper building laws been followed, much of the Carlton Tower fire in Bangalore, which claimed nine lives and left 70 injured, could have been averted. The fifth and sixth floors of the building that caught fire were unauthorised constructions, with corridors leading to staircases encroached upon and fire exits locked. Heart-wrenching calamities of Kumbakonam in Tamil Nadu in 2004, which took the lives of more than 90 children, and the Uphaar cinema in Delhi in 1997, which claimed 59 lives, have failed to be the catalyst for change.

Rules of safety

This gross negligence is despite the fact that the National Building Code of India, laid down by the Bureau of Indian Standards, gives a unified description of building regulations for use by government departments, municipal bodies and other construction agencies throughout the country. The code has a chapter devoted to dealing with fire protection. Targeted at multi-storey structures, it forms the basis for setting standards of fire resistance for building structures. The key emphasis is on safe design and construction of the buildings. But, clearly, when it comes to following building laws, all rules and regulations go for a toss.

In Delhi, for instance, more than 700 high-rise buildings are currently flouting fire safety norms. We issued notices this year to 718 high-rise buildings for violating fire safety norms in the capital, while 215 other buildings were re-notified after inaction on previous notices, says RC Sharma, director, DFS. Absence of smoke detectors and presence of outdated fire extinguishers is common in establishments across the country.

Also, use of combustible material and objects in the interior spaces of residential and commercial spaces has also increased the risk of fire. Niranajan Hiranandani, MD, Hiranandani Group, attributes the cause of fire to lack of maintenance. Even if a builder adheres to all the building bylaws, it has been seen that maintenance of fire fighting means is ignored, even when the provisions are there, he says.

Apart from the lives lost, these raging infernos also cause considerable economic loss, a lesson that is still to be learnt. This season, a fire in Mundka plastic scrap yard in north-west Delhi destroyed goods worth Rs 50 crore, while some estimates put the value of goods burnt in the fire at the Inland Container Depot (ICD) in Tughlakabad at over Rs 100 crore.

With incidents of fire, a common occurrence across the country, what is surprising is the lack of a central agency that tracks and keeps a record of these incidents. Not all fire accidents that occur have a scientific reason behind them. That is why there is no central agency that is maintaining a record of these mishaps and the subsequent losses, says DK Shami, deputy fire advisor, ministry of home affairs .

Absence of a common legislation is also a worrying matter. There is no separate central legislation on fire safety in the country yet, says GB Menon, former fire adviser, Government of India, and president, National Association of Fire Officers. Each state is supposed to have its own fire service act and rules, based on the Model Fire Service Bill, which was circulated by the MHA in October 1958. Some states are yet to enact their own legislation on this subject, says Menon.

With the absence of central data that tracks these records, the onus lies on state governments and fire services to maintain their own records. Even the national capitals fire-related figures are in a sorry state. Unplanned and sporadic growth of cities is a major cause of rising instances of fire. Delhi alone registered over 21,000 cases and 423 deaths in the past one year.

Whats missing

DFS, on its part, hasnt been able to do justice to its working practices as well. The 2010 report by the Comptroller and Auditor General of India (CAG) has cited that DFS had failed to arrive at the spot on time in 77% cases, leading to more loss of life and property. As per the Standing Fire Advisory Council (SFAC) norms, the first fire engine should reach the site of an accident within five minutes of a call in urban areas. The SFAC also suggests that fire engines should aim to reach the spot within three minutes if a blaze breaks out in high-rise buildings or closely built-up areas. What is frightening is the fact that 846 schools, both public and privately-run, dont follow fire safety norms.

The Delhi Fire Department is also battling shortage of staff. It has only 1,583 personnel against the required 3,028, a shortage of 48%.

Also, against the required 70 fire stations, the city has 51 stations. The remaining stations are in various stages of completion and ten will start functioning by the end of this year, says Sharma. Lack of awareness about basic fire prevention measures is the primary cause for fire, says AK Sharma, chief fire officer, DFS, who joined the service two decades back.

Considered a thankless profession, Sharma believes that the image of a fireman is changing. Things are changing for the good, he adds. While there is no dearth of regulations, what is missing is a stringent and efficient enforcement mechanism.