Firefighting troubles

Firefighting troubles

Crippled by inadequate infrastructure, manpower, poor access to several congested areas and infrequent technology upgrades, the Fire Department has a mountain of problems.

For a city growing by leaps and bounds without much planning, leaving a critical agency such as the Fire Department without teeth is a sureshot invitation to disaster. The recent death of a factory employee, ironically during a fire safety mock drill, is only a symptom of a larger malaise.

There is not even the minimum facility available for a huge city like Bangalore, points out B G Chengappa, director, Fire Department. “According to the Standing Fire Advisory Council (SFAC), Bangalore City should have 50 fire stations and 100 fire tenders, but the number of fire stations is just 14 and that of fire tenders 52.”

Bangalore will have to wait for another two years to get six more fire stations. These are to come up at Hulimavu, EPIP area in White Field, Sunkadakatte, Nagarbhavi, the Vidhana Soudha and Jakkur. “Construction work of fire stations at Hulimavu, Jakkur and the Vidhana Soudha is going on in full swing. But the biggest challenge the Fire Department is facing is housing the remaining three stations due to non-availability of land,” says Chengappa.

The objective of SFAC to have 100 fire stations is to ensure firefighting vehicles reach the place of mishap within three minutes. Acute shortage of fire stations and much delay in reaching the spot have been the biggest challenges of the Fire Department, he stresses.

But the department’s image took a beating recently after the recent death of a factory employee during a safety exercise at Yeshwantpur. Adequate precautions were not taken before a woman social welfare officer was asked to climb down a multi-storey building, a gross mistake that cost her life when the rope securing her snapped. “I agree there was a technical snag and our junior officers were a bit lethargic during one of the recent mock drills in Peenya where a social welfare officer of a garment factory was killed,” admits A R Infant, Director General of Police, Fire and Emergency Services, Home Guards and Civil Defence.

However, he says the episode should not be allowed to dampen the spirits of firemen. “I have called for a detailed inquiry and even suspended a few officers. We have learnt from our mistakes and done our homework right. I have ordered for a thorough check of equipment and rescheduled drills so that the entire system is foolproof,” explains Infant.
“We can’t do away with mock drills as they help in many ways. Firstly, we need to get updated and refresh our skills. Equipment we use are to be tried and tested constantly.

Our main purpose is to create awareness, educate and build trust among citizens. That shouldn’t be defeated. On February 14, we had scheduled a mock drill at the Utility Building on MG Road. At the last minute, the building authorities were not ready and we shifted to the Peenya garment factory. We have done hundreds of mock drills and this was an accident,” the DG reasons.

But Infant suspending only lower-rung officers for the mishap had invited controversy. He explains, “I have called for a detailed inquiry and in the days to come, I will be getting the report, and the guilty will be punished.”

Vacant posts

Lack of adequate manpower is another big problem for the Fire Department. “At present, there are 2,549 vacant posts. The sanctioned strength of the department is 6,450, whereas the actual strength is 3,901. This includes 768 posts of 32 fire stations, yet to be opened. The vacancy position in the existing fire stations and other establishments is 5,682,” says Chengappa.

These are big numbers for a department that receives, on an average, around 1,36,875 calls in a year. “Last year, we have saved around 6,969 human lives and property worth crores of rupees,” he adds.

To supplement the department’s firefighting infrastructure, the City once had more than 700 hydrants and that came in handy, often. But now, as Infant says, there is hardly any of them left. And the remaining ones have drained out. “Forget water, even metal caps are missing. We have been constantly writing to the BWSSB to restore hydrants, and if need be, we have to take up restoration work ourselves,” says Infant.

Inadequate provisions

It took nearly 47 years for the State Fire Department to modify the Karnataka Fire Force Act of 1964 to meet the requirements of the present era. The existing Act does not authorise the Fire Department to take action and seize structure that have been constructed, violating building construction norms. The fire departments in Delhi and Mumbai have powers to do so. After the Carltown Towers tragedy, the Karnataka government, in its notification dated July 7, 2011, empowered the Fire Department with additional powers to carry out surprise checks at least once in two years to ascertain whether fire safety measures provided in high-rise buildings comply with rules, laws and bylaws of the local authority.

The Fire Department staff strongly feel the need for several changes in the Act such as powers to conducts checks on their own, power to seize structures and power to penalise owners of such structures. Unfortunately, the Fire Department staff also did not make sustained efforts to pressure the government to modify the Act, admits another officer.

Manmade accidents

Nearly 15 per cent of fire mishaps are manmade aimed at claiming insurance money, while around 50 per cent mishaps occur due to short circuit. The remaining 35 per cent occur due to negligence, rivalry and other such reasons. Many people just obtain a certificate from the Fire Department to claim insurance money, points out a Fire Department staffer.

“Since November 2, 1970, we have a state-of-art training academy. Our well-established training academy – R A Mundkur Fire and Emergency Service Academy is functioning on Bannerghatta Road, Bangalore, where we train newly recruited staff and in-service personnel and also employees of industrial and commercial establishments and other occupations,” says Chengappa.

History of mishaps

Bangalore City has witnessed 11 fire tragedies and building collapses involving the Fire Department staff attending to rescue operations in the past 33 years.

Oct 9, 1979: Shop selling loose fire crackers catches fire, 8 shops destroyed and 27 killed.

Feb 2, 1981: Venus Circus fire when schoolchildren were watching show, 92 killed.

Sept 12, 1983: The high-rise Gangaram building collapse, 120 killed, last body recovered on 30th day.

Feb 14, 1990: Airbus A-320 crash at Challaghatta tank near HAL airport, 89 killed.

Feb 23, 2010: Carlton Towers fire mishap, 9 killed.

March 23, 2010: Fire at CSD canteen of ASC Old Airport Road, property worth crores destroyed.

April 12, 2010    Fire at Golden Tower, Residency Road, no death, but created huge panic.

April 16, 2010    Fire at Gokul Das garment godown, no death; property worth crores destroyed.

May 5, 2010    Fire at American Power Conversion factory, Jigani, Anekal, no death; property worth crores destroyed.

Feb 24, 2012: Readymade garment factory social welfare officer dies during mock drill.

Feb 25, 2012    Fire at Russell Market, nearly 200 shops gutted, property worth crores destroyed.

Loss of property

Property                          Value destroyed 

2009                                131.05 crore           
2010                                376.80 crore          
2011                                91.80 crore    

Property worth destroyed        

2009                                17.34 crore          
2010                                148.04 crore            
2011                               13.62 crore    

Property value protected      

2009                               113.70 crore            
2010                              228.75 crore                   
2011                               78.17 crore      

Deaths, injuries       

Year      Deaths     injuries     False calls

2009        12              64            1569
2010        14             109           1734
2011        14              37            1714

Mock drills

Mock drills, demonstrations and lecture classes conducted by Fire Department

Year              Mock Drill         Demonstration & lecture classes

2009                272                                     485
2010               1477                                   2230
2011               964                                     1932
Total                 2713                                  4647

Six fire personnel were killed while executing rescue operations since 1976

* Aug 31, 1976:    Munivenkatachala, Fireman
* Apr 13, 1978:    M Shekhar, Leading Fireman
* June 6, 1978:    B D Narasimhaiah,  Fireman  
* June 22, 1978:  C R Gangaiah, Fireman
* Jan 4, 1993:    S B Lakshmanegowda, Fireman
* Sept 3, 2000:     Anjaneya Reddy, Fireman.

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