Disasters waiting to happen

Disasters waiting to happen

The capital’s tryst with fires peaks with the rising mercury in summer. While the ghost of the two-decade old Uphaar Cinema fire tragedy continues to haunt the city, it is the slackness to learn from past mistakes which makes it vulnerable to short circuits and blazes year after year.

The Delhi Fire Services are already overburdened and work with a small fleet of fire and water tenders.

Experts say the architectural deficiency of high rises to accommodate fire safety measures and motorists’ insensitivity towards giving way to fire fighters on busy roads adds to the problem.

“Total absence of a culture of undertaking precautionary servicing of wiring and loose connections by building owners continues to be the burning issues in the city,” says Swapnil Aggarwal, a professor at School of Planning and Architecture.

“It is as if we are waiting to be jolted out of slumber with a new horrifying tale of death, trauma,” Aggarwal adds. 
Last year, the fire department had received the highest number of fire-related calls in the past 13 years. The data reveals that 291 people were killed and 2,068 injured in some of 23,242 calls attended by the department.

Around 230 people had died, and 1,334 injured in 14,595 calls in 2003.
“The threat of fire in high-rise buildings is constant and the consequences can be grave if adequate precautionary measures are not taken,” says DFS Director A K Sharma.

About 60 per cent fires are of electric origin – short circuit, overheating, overload, illegal tapping of wires and improper wiring.

“Electrical fires spread rapidly,” says Sharma. “Such incidents can be minimised to a great extent if adequate fire precautions are observed.”
Desperate situations
Firefighters often find themselves in helpless situations as the hydraulic platforms can only reach to a height of 60 metres under most favourable operating conditions.

A water tender carries 4,500 litres of water, and about 600 litres of water flow through a nozzle in a minute. It takes only four minutes to empty a water tender if two nozzles are used to throw water on to a fire.

“We have also noticed that a small flame can get completely out of control and turn into a major fire in less than 30 seconds,” says a fire official posted with Connaught Place fire station.

“A fire’s heat alone can kill. Room temperatures can be 100 degrees at floor level and rise to 600 degrees at eye level,” the official adds.

The heat can melt clothes to skin and inhaling the hot air can scorch lungs. In five minutes, a room can get so hot that everything catches fire.

The exploding population in jhuggi jhopri clusters and the construction material used there has also turned out to be a nightmare for the firefighters.  “The materials used are highly combustible and produce toxic gases when involved in fire.” Sharma says.

Rooms in slums are built side by side and back to back in a row, and the lanes serving them are also hardly a metre in width. They also store huge quantity of rags, chemicals, plastic and PVC.

“The unsystematic layout leads to entire area getting gutted in fire in shortest possible time. It also causes delay in starting firefighting operations,” Sharma adds.

A doctor at All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS) trauma centre says that smoke and toxic gases kill more people than flames.

“Fire uses up the oxygen you need and produces smoke and poisonous gases that kill. Breathing even small amounts of smoke and toxic gases can make you drowsy, disoriented and short of breath,” says doctor Ambili Sharma.

Unsafe schools
A review conducted by the fire department last year reveals that one out of every five schools does not have the periodic fire safety clearance certificate.

“At least 20 per cent of the schools, mostly the ones run by the government or municipal corporations, have failed to fulfil the safety requirements,” the report states. 

Notices have been sent to a list of schools. Officials say that despite being intimated several times, the schools have still failed to fulfil the safety requirements.

In the case of some schools, the safety clearances are pending for over two years. Many of them have assured that they would get the changes done by the end of this year’s summer vacations.

The department anticipates a clearance rate of 85 to 90 per cent by the end of this year.
But things hardly turn up asexpected.   
According to Y S Mann, spokesman for North and East Municipal Corporations, many schools under the jurisdiction of the two corporations have fulfilled the fire safety requirements in consultation with the engineers’ department. “For others, we are trying our best to get periodic fire clearances as early as possible,” Mann says.

He adds that some of the buildings, especially the ones in and around Old Delhi, are quite old. “Despite renovation, they have failed to fulfil the safety requirements in several aspects,” Mann says.

Out of the nearly 340 schools that come under the South Delhi Municipal Corporation, over 300 have procured the clearance certificate, South Delhi Municipal Corporation spokesman Mukesh Yadav says. “For the ones that haven’t, measures are being taken to procure fire clearance at the earliest,” he adds.     

Many rules   
According to the rules, schools, hospitals, offices, factories and other commercial buildings have to get fire safety clearance every three years.    
For residential buildings above 15 metres high, the process is to be repeated in five years.

Rules for schools include provision of two doors for every classroom in which the number of students exceeds 45. A fire safety system that includes a manual or automated smoke-detecting alarm and a tank pump are also required.

The fire department has also been facing issues of manpower and lack of adequate infrastructure for major fire-fighting operations.

Currently, they maintain a fleet of 222 fire fighting vehicles and supporting units. The headquarters – Connaught Place fire station – is equipped with special appliances for combating fire and other special rescue jobs.

Specialised units are also positioned at Chanakayapuri, Bhikaji Cama Place, Safdarjung, Nehru Place, Prasad Nagar, Shankar Road, Janakpuri and Laxmi Nagar fire stations.
“Like every year, temporary fire posts will also be set up in rural areas during summer season,” Sharma adds.

Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal has also vowed to make the department a model for the rest of the country and pledged his support to the department.

“The Delhi Government will ensure you never face any shortage of funds. Together we will make the Delhi Fire Service a model fire service,” the Chief Minister had said at the department’s 73rd Raising Day function.

Apart from attending fire calls, the department sends vehicles on standby duties during public gathering and VIP visits.

Frequent requests are also received by the department for providing fire safety cover at private functions. The fire tenders are provided, subject to availability, on payment of Rs 3,000 for each per day.

The department advises people to ensure that the booked venue has a valid no objection certificate from them. But it is not a guarantee against the outbreak of a fire.

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