Neglecting disasters in waiting

Neglecting disasters in waiting

The newly renovated Connaught Place recently saw two big fires, one after the other. Though no casualties were reported, it showed that the Delhi Fire Services (DFS) perhaps lacked sophisticated equipment to save lives in case of a major tragedy.

It took six hours for 22 fire tenders to douse the flames at Hamilton House in A-Block last Monday. A day later, the Embassy restaurant at D-Block was badly damaged.

A blast in a transformer also led to another major fire in Chandni Chowk on Monday. The blaze in the central Delhi market was initially confined to seven shops, but soon it spread to over 30. It was alleged that the fire department was informed at 2.45 pm, but the firefighters failed to reach the spot till 3.15 pm.

DFS Director A K Sharma, however, defended his men. The 1,500 firefighters under him cannot be blamed as they still enter dangerous areas with just a helmet and a yellow overall for protection.

“We also have a limited number of gas masks and other protective clothing. In Monday’s fire, we needed specialised equipment to break through concrete structure, but had to make do with hammers,” Sharma says.

Hydraulic platforms and hydraulic cutting tools are the only major lifesaving gadgets with the firefighters. But the hydraulic platforms available with the department can only go up to 60 metres or eight to ten floors under most favourable operating conditions, whereas many buildings in the capital have over 20 floors.

It could mean that in the case of a fire in a high-rise building, the DFS would only be able to reach the top floors through stairs.

Compare this with the largest urban fire department in the world, the Tokyo Fire Department. It has 12 different types of firefighting and rescue robots. These robots are designed to handle disasters that are too dangerous for humans.

Some robots can shoot water or foam at flames, rescue people and move larger objects. They are controlled by remote operators. The department has over 500 fire tenders, helicopters, ambulances, chemical trucks and motorcycles.   

Sharma says the DFS faces acute shortage of firefighting personnel. At present, there is a shortage of 35 per cent. Of the total capacity of 3,000, over 1,000 positions are lying vacant. In comparison, the largest municipal fire department in the United States, the New York City Fire Department, employs some 11,000 firefighters and over 3,300 paramedics.

The capital with its ever increasing population in crowded localities and far-flung colonies has always been a city with ‘heavy fire risk’. Data reveals 60 per cent of fires are of electric origin on account of short circuit, overheating, overloading, illegal tapping of wires and improper wiring, among others.

According to the DFS, at least 150 distress calls are attended to in a day, with a little over 200 fire tenders at 56 locations. There were 22,581 calls last year and 285 deaths. Of the 222 vehicles that the department has, 150 are water tankers while the rest are chemical tanks, foam tenders, rescue tenders, cars and motorcycles.

A DFS officer says a fire truck carries 4,500 litres of water, and sprays 600 litres per minute. “If two nozzles are used to throw water on the flames, it takes only four minutes to empty a water tender,” the officer adds.

The fire tenders also face another problem in Delhi – narrow lanes. The firemen sent to put out the Chandni Chowk blaze on Monday were forced to return to their depots to get longer pipes when the fire tenders failed to enter the narrow lanes.

If police are to be believed, the heavy fire risk has further increased with the construction of high-rise buildings. What is even more distressing is that incidents can happen as the mandatory fire safety norms are not strictly enforced in the capital by the government or any of the departments.

“Many high-rise buildings do not have built-in firefighting equipment, considered to be essential from the safety point of view,” Additional Commissioner of Police (New Delhi) S B S Tyagi says.

In May, the DFS had highlighted that a large number of schools do not apply for fire safety certificates despite reminders, and those whch do get them, do not apply for renewal. Many schools are located in congested localities and unauthorised colonies, which is why reaching them would be extremely difficult in case of fire.

The Comptroller and Auditor General of India had also pulled up the city government’s Health Department for not having adequate fire safety arrangements in government hospitals. A report presented in Parliament on August 1 said that 10 out of 37 government hospitals in Delhi do not have no-objection certificates issued by the DFS.

“Non-functioning of fire fighting systems and improper use of basements was noticed. In select hospitals, neither training for staff on fire safety nor mock fire drills with the help of DFS were conducted,” the report stated.

Lok Nayak Hospital, Guru Teg Bahadur Hospital, Gobind Ballabh Pant Hospital, Baba Saheb Ambedkar Hospital and Maulana Azad Institute of Dental Sciences were named in the report for not having adequate fire safety arrangements.

But experts say an NOC from DFS is not a guarantee against the outbreak of fire, and availability of firefighting equipment on the premises cannot also prevent it.

Vikram Aggarwal of NGO Fire and Safety Association of India says staying prepared only helps in minimising loses.

“A small flame can get completely out of control in less than 30 seconds and turn into a major fire. We have seen that the fire’s heat alone can kill. Room temperature in a fire can be 100 degree Celsius at floor level, and rise to 600 degree Celsius at eye level. The heat can melt clothes to skin and inhaling the hot air will scorch lungs,” Aggarwal says.

The two fires in Connaught Place have drawn the government’s attention. The New Delhi Municipal Council is now planning to buy high capacity extinguishers. “We will procure special firefighting gear, including oxygen masks, for our men. I don’t want them to get hurt in rescue operations,” NDMC chairperson Jalaj Shrivasatava says.

Atul Bhargava, president of New Delhi Traders’ Association, has also issued an advisory to all traders to check their fire safety mechanisms. Traders say that the fire department and the NDMC should help them in identifying problem areas and fixing them.

“We have asked traders to put fire safety measures in place. But we need the fire department’s assistance in fixing the problems,” Bhargava adds.

To make up for the shortcoming, the DFS has been operating a training centre – Fire Safety Management Academy – at outer Delhi’s Rohini  The centre not only caters to the needs of the department, but also offers facilities to neighbouring states and paramilitary forces.

Short duration courses on fire prevention and protection are being run for institutions like hotels, government institutes, and staff working in auditoriums.