The efficient manner in which over 90 personnel and two dozen fire tenders averted a major tragedy after a blaze at the four-storey Punjab National Bank headquarters on Parliament Street last month is cited as proof that Delhi Fire Service is amongst the best firefighting units in the country.
About 250 people were trapped in the smoke-filled building which triggered panic across the national capital. But it took firefighters just under an hour to safely evacuate them by using hydraulic platforms, ladders and other resources at their command.
Similarly, 54 stations of the department’s New Delhi, South and West zones responded to over 22,400 emergency calls over the last 12 months. Around 2,100 people were injured and over 350 people were killed in the incidents. Fire department officials say their prompt response in these cases kept the toll from going higher.
But Delhi Fire Service is inadequately prepared to save lives lives in case a high-rise building is on fire. The hydraulic platforms available with the department can only go up to eight or ten floors, while many buildings in the City, including the Municipal Corporation of Delhi (MCD) Civic Centre, have more than 20 floors.
This means that in case of a fire in a high-rise building, the DFS would only be able to reach the higher floors through stairs.
Staff shortage in fire department
And then there are the administrative issues. The department functions with 1,850 personnel – just above half of its sanctioned strength of 3,468 – though the process of filling up 1,242 vacancies through Delhi Subordinate Staff Selection Board is now in its final stages.
“Approximately, 500 candidates have been selected and dossiers have been sent for verification. About 220 candidates have successfully completed the verification process. Out of them 110 are undergoing training at Fire Safety Management Academy (FSMA) Rohini, and 109 more recruits are likely to join shortly,” said DFS chief A K Sharma.
In order to reduce the response time to any emergency call, the department has set itself a target of setting up 70 fire stations in the City, which means adding 17 more.
“Work is in progress at seven sites and 10 are in final stages of completion,” Sharma said.
He said the department, during the last financial year, procured six quick reaction vehicles, 12 breathing air compressors, 10 inflatable light towers, 10 ground monitors, 50 hand controlled branches, two spectrographs, 500 fire hoses and 20 chassis for fabrication of water bowsers and water tenders. To combat fires at congested places, the department has also procured smaller firefighting vehicles like motorcycles and Toyota Innova cars.
The DFS operates under the fire safety provisions of The Delhi Fire Service Act 2007 and Delhi Fire Service Rules 2010. This Act has special provisions for appointment of fire safety officers in certain categories of buildings. It also empowers the government to regulate fire safety measures in buildings which face a fire risk.
The new rules also require buildings to meet criteria such as compartmentalising of rooms, smoke management system, automatic fire detection and alarm system, public address system, automatic sprinklers, internal and yard hydrants, pumping arrangement, captive water storage for firefighting, exit signs, refuge area and fire control room.
The department's fire prevention wing, under the charge of a chief fire officer, examines building plans and issued directives relating to fire prevention and fire safety measures. If a building owner or occupier fails to comply with the rules within a specified time, the building's fire safety certificate can be cancelled.
Senior fire officials confirm that numerous buildings in central Delhi, which received initial fire safety certificates in 1994, have failed to get them renewed – and are at risk of turning into firetraps in case of a blaze similar to that at Punjab National Bank headquarters.
The PNB fire has also forced the department to take renewal of fire safety certificates more seriously. It has now started issuing notices to buildings in and around Connaught Place to upgrade their firefighting systems. The notices are likely to be issued to owners of Gopal Das Building, Ansal Bhawan, Akashdeep Building, Jeevan Bharti Building and Indian Oil Bhawan.
Inspections throughout the year
The department also conducts inspections of high-rise buildings of schools, hospitals and nursing homes throughout the year.
In the wake of the AMRI Hospital fire in Kolkata last year which left over 90 people dead, DFS had inspected all hospitals under the state and central government, Municipal Corporation of Delhi, New Delhi Municipal Council and Employees' State Insurance Corporation and submitted a detailed report to the government. The department also issued notices to all city hospitals to upgrade their fire-fighting systems and get No Objection Certificates by March 31.
Despite the remedial measures, it has come to light that the country's premier medical institute, All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS), which caters to nearly 8,000 patients a day, has failed to meet the deadline and sought more time.
The cardiovascular and neurosciences centre of AIIMS, which also houses the VVIP ward, is one of the buildings in the hospital which is said to be still functioning without an NOC from the fire department.
During an inspection at the hospital, DFS had raised an objection after it was found that there was no sprinkler system, smoke management system or compartmentalising of rooms to prevent the spread of fire. Besides, there is so much traffic at the exit and entry points that any mishap could lead to massive casualties.
Schools in the Capital too present a sorry picture. A special campaign was conducted for their inspection, and it was found that nearly half of them are not sufficiently equipped to deal with fire incidents.
According to the records, 1,786 of 4,082 schools in Delhi have not been granted an NOC. These include 650 private or aided recognized schools, 649 MCD schools and 449 Delhi government schools.
Increasing awareness among Delhiites, especially schoolchildren, is a priority.
The DFS took part in a coordinated mega disaster management mock drill conducted on February 15 at 118 locations – meant to create awareness as well as test the response of Fire and other emergency services.
During the nearly two-hour drill, the capital faced a number of simulated disasters. Flyovers and residential buildings collapsed, hospitals were damaged and cracks appeared on Metro pillars due to an earthquake measuring 7.2 on the Richter scale. Hundreds of buildings and six Delhi Metro stations were evacuated and several flyovers were closed to traffic.
At the end of the exercise, the National Disaster Management Authority figured that Delhi's emergency services could have coordinated their responses better.