A survivor's notes on how to prevent more Carlton tragedies

Two months ago to this day, as I stood by the window of my 7th floor office in Carlton Towers on Feb 23, I was coughing up blood and thick black smoke came out of my mouth every time I exhaled. Having earlier seen a colleague of mine fall to her death right in front of my eyes, the last hour and a half had been a struggle to stay positive and think of the reasons I wanted to stay alive for.

Even as my hopes had started to fade and I bid my goodbyes to my wife, eventually, I was rescued by firemen who came in through the building after having doused the fire. Although I was conscious, the journey down the fire escape and to the hospital was a blur.

Recovery has been slow and painful, and I am still on medication and inhalers to help clear my lungs and reduce the inflammation.

Enough has been said about why the Carlton Towers incident happened, and even as it was still being discussed, the Stephen Court disaster happened in Kolkata. Ironically, it took place on the same day a memorial service was planned for the victims of the Carlton Towers fire — exactly a month after the incident.

As I lay in the ICU, I started to scribble my thoughts about what had happened, why it did and how we could prevent casualties in similar fire accidents through better preparedness and management. It’s not just a Bangalore-specific issue, but a nationwide problem to be tackled at that scale as our metros are sitting ducks for similar accidents to happen again and again.

I want to initiate a discussion with respect to fire safety that applies to all of us, at least those of us who live in cities with multi-storey buildings.

Taking fire safety seriously: Buildings are growing taller by the day and coming across buildings under construction that are 20-25 floors high is not uncommon. Expecting the fire services department to have ladders that reach that high is impractical.

As for response time, the least one can expect is 15-20 minutes, maybe more. This is sufficient time for the fire to spread and for people to lose their lives, especially if the alarm systems have not worked and the fire has been spotted late.

So what does this mean? In short: self-help. While the fire services may be able to save a few people, this should ideally be the last resort. Fire or smoke does not spread at the snap of a finger and if adequate safety measures are taken, there is no reason why people can’t escape well in time. If the first smoke detector is able to raise an alarm and if the sprinklers get activated as soon as they sense heat and flames, chances of survival for the occupants will rise dramatically.

Need for training: As with any other skill, the importance of training and practice can not be over-emphasised. A great example is that of driving a car. Experienced drivers can talk on the mobile (not a great idea), eat a sandwich, change gears, brake and accelerator as required and also use indicators, lights, etc. And they can do all this while dodging traffic, pedestrians and cows. Ask a rookie driver to do even some of the above at the same time and the importance of regular practice becomes clear. The same is true for practice in using a fire extinguisher, or practice in reacting to a fire emergency.

We need to be trained to handle fire emergencies so that if and when the time comes, we are able to save not only ourselves but also others like children, old people and the like.

Time to demand safety standards: We see all around us buildings with glass facades, basement parking, landscaping, centralised air conditioning, etc. But, why is that buildings that lack or violate even basic fire safety norms are lapped up by buyers? Because either they don’t know better or simply don’t care — both potentially fatal mistakes.

Learning from the past, if we start demanding and looking for fire safety features in a building, developers will start providing the required fire safety measures, if only to ensure that they command the desired selling price.

Importance of exit doors: In most buildings, exit doors are kept locked to ensure that miscreants or outsiders don’t come in. A better way of ensuring safety is to have doors that open only from the inside. Apparently the National Building Code (NBC) already prescribes such doors. Combine such measures with pressurised stairwells, emergency lighting, smoke detectors, alarms and sprinklers, and you have a building that dramatically increases your chances of survival in case of a fire.

Crowd management: In most instances, a large crowd of onlookers gathers at the scene of the tragedy, blocking roads, hampering rescue operations. Effective crowd management through cordoning off the area is absolutely critical, although not allowing the general public in participating in rescue operations may sound counter-productive.

However, untrained personnel can cause more harm than good, as was observed in the case of the Carlton Towers tragedy, where onlookers held a hastily put together net of bed sheets and pillows, urging people on the higher floors to jump. Almost all who chose to take this route fell to their death.

Traffic management: The traffic needs to be streamlined and controlled better to let emergency vehicles like fire engines and ambulances to move quickly. It can happen only if there’s better coordination between the police, fire services and the hospitals. More lives can surely be saved this way.

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