Trapped in a summer blaze

The devastating Aero India blaze that gutted over 300 cars might have come as a numbing shocker. But should it be dismissed as a freak open area mishap, disconnected from the city’s grossly inadequate fire defence system, exasperated by an unregulated vertical push? Do the rising fires give us comfort?

One look at the city’s urban maze of narrow, chaotic streets lined by unplanned buildings, and you know the dangerous reality. Violating every building bye-law in the rulebook, high-rises have mushroomed across the city, making a mockery of free, quick accessibility to firefighters.

But how do you make sense of a system that learns nothing from the Carlton Tower fire or countless summer blazes that have claimed lives in hundreds?

Despite stringent rules, builders continue to change plans once the Fire and Emergency Services Department gives its go-ahead. Mock drills, mandated for most high-rises have been reduced to a mockery.

Vulnerability envelope

The rising summer heat has expanded the vulnerability envelope in congested areas across Bengaluru. For the Fire Department, the priority is vulnerable patients in high-rise hospitals (buildings taller than 15m). “They are the most vulnerable. Often sedated, in ICUs or Operation Theatres, they are immobile,” notes Sunil Agarwal, Additional Director General of Police, Fire & Emergency Services.

The Department, informs Agarwal, has served notices to over 200 hospitals across the State. “Less than 10% responded seeking more time to take fire safety measures. But despite giving them time, many have not done anything concrete,” he elaborates.

The defaulters now have another two months to ensure that their electrical installations are in ship shape. Old and worn out equipment will have to be replaced as a precaution against short circuits, a major cause for fire and smoke. Often, it is the smoke that leads to asphyxiation.

Wiring will have to be updated and insulated. The Department is expected to hold a review shortly and take penal action against those who failed to take action.

School children safety

School children in high-rise educational institutions are also in the Department’s radar. So are the multiplexes with tons of inflammable decoration material. Hundreds of schools in the ‘vulnerable’ category are located deep inside congested areas, inaccessible to the big fire tenders.

The Carlton Towers fire that claimed nine lives on February 23, 2010 had exposed the dangers of a lax system that allowed high rises to carry on without any fire safety checks. Beyond Carlton, the citizens’ collective founded by relatives of the fire victims, had recently observed the ninth anniversary of that terrible tragedy.

Fire-risk assessment

To mark the ninth year, Beyond Carlton, along with Bangalore Apartments’ Federation (BAF) and other agencies, has launched a campaign to offer Free Fire-Risk Assessment for apartments in the city.

The campaign objectives are clear: To raise awareness on fire safety amongst residents and Resident Welfare Associations (RWAs); to help RWAs be better prepared and well equipped on fire safety if a fire accident happens. BAF, with its large reach of apartments in the city, has expressed its intent to help its members get aware and understand how compliant their apartments are for fire safety.

The fire-risk assessment will be undertaken by students of Jain (Deemed-to-be-University) and When-It Strikes, along with the RWAs. A standard checklist will be the basis for the assessment of fire safety preparedness. The assessment will then be analysed for corrective planning and action.

Beyond Carlton founder, Uday Vijayan explains the rationale behind the campaign: “We understand the damage, trauma and anxiety that these mishaps cause. Having been born out of a fire tragedy ourselves, it has been our purpose to ensure other families do not suffer due to ignorance and lack of awareness and non-compliance to fire safety.”

Under the provisions of a state government order issued in July, 2011, the Department can even initiate criminal action. “Agencies such as Bescom and BWSSB can cut power and water supply if they do not comply with the rules,” informs Agarwal.

Mini fire stations

Reduction of response time in case of a fire alert has been a constant challenge for the Fire Department. To cater to remote areas far away from a fire station, the Department has now proposed fire substations on the lines of police outposts.

Eleven such substations are in the pipeline, all equipped with the smaller Agni and Varuna medium and motorcycle-borne firefighters. These mini stations are likely to come up soon in KR Puram, Silk Board Junction, NICE Road Junction (Kengeri), Kannminike, Bannerghatta National Park, Harohalli Industrial Area, Attibele, Sarjapura village, Dodda Dunnasandra, Marathahalli Junction, and Gandhinagar.

Accessibility boost

The substations could make a huge difference in locations where the bigger vehicles find it tough to reach quickly. The city’s 20 big fire stations are becoming increasingly inadequate to meet the mounting fire safety demands of an ever-rising population.

But what about the fire safety challenges posed by the highrises? In his budgetary speech, Chief Minister H D Kumaraswamy had proposed to procure Aerial Ladder Platform Vehicles that could reach up to a height of 90 metres. The trigger was the rising number for skyscrapers, much taller than the highrise cut-off of 15 metres.

Fire safety blueprint

This can work only if there is a well-structured plan of action. Last year, Beyond Carlton, in consultation with the Karnataka State Fire & Emergency Services and Janaagraha, had prepared a five-year fire safety blueprint for Bengaluru with a critical objective: To ensure ‘Zero Deaths’ due to fire accidents in the city in 2023, and reduce the fire incidents to 50% of the number in 2017.

Over a five-year period from 2018 to 2023, the blueprint called for introduction of a retrofit policy for older buildings, linking property tax payment and fire No Objection Certificates, a Public Private Partnership policy for private agencies to partner for new fire stations and monitoring, compulsory burns wards in well-equipped hospitals, and protocols for inter-agency coordination.

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Trapped in a summer blaze

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