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Is your building safe from fire?

August 13, 2008

It is an unusual building which has fire safety mechanisms in place. Either builders break the laws or worse, the law bends. This is what a group of five activists found out when they inspected documents at the office of the Chief Fire Officer of Mumbai under RTI section 4. This information may be about Mumbai I doubt that other places are much better, except perhaps Delhi where I believe laws have been revamped, and authorities are becoming strict. In fact 70 more fire stations are coming up in Delhi.

Here is the deadly information about Mumbai:

  • 8,000-odd hydrants in the city – 4,900 non-functional and the rest ignored because of uncertainties in water-pressure. Fire brigade prefers to ignore the entire system, relying on its own water tankers and foam tenders.
  • 33 fire stations (international norms say 120). But only 3 of these 33 are adequately equipped. The others borrow equipment from other fire stations whenever there is an emergency wasting precious time!
  • Serious problem of understaffing of the Mumbai Fire Brigade.
  • Inability to get best equipment due to the tendering process taking an average of three years from the stage of requisitioning new equipment until the time it is delivered. By the time the equipment is delivered and operational, it’s already outdated.

Laws tampered with
As I mentioned earlier, laws have been bent – the authorities have issued circulars overriding existing laws. In reference to high-rises, the actual rules require builders to leave space around the buildings plus terraces at the upper levels but circulars issued in 1996 (for repairs of old buildings) did away with many crucial space requirements. In some cases, builders were allowed to leave no space at all, and in others, just about 5 feet of open space was permitted on some sides. In actuality the space requirements can range from 6-12 meters!
The extra space is needed for rescue operations. Another danger of buildings being close together is the danger of fires spreading.

The legal requirement of the No Objection Certificate from the Chief Fire Officer and/or the Municipal Corporation’s Occupation Certificate has been done away with in many cases! A circular issued says just pay a penalty of just Rs 50 per sq. m. for residential buildings and Rs 100 per sq. m. for non-residential ones and you can do without a certificate! Seems like a joke doesn’t it…

Fire risk at Industrial estates

  • Fire escape routes enclosed
  • Fire escape balcony encroached
  • Common passages / corridor encroached
  • Fire fighting installations not provided / not maintained
  • Open spaces not adequate and found encroached
  • Entrance gate inadequate
  • Loft area exceeding permissible limits
  • Windows enclosed by metal grills
  • Staircases blocked by stored goods

So why is this allowed? It isn’t, and Notices are served, but if people don’t obey, their trade licenses are not cancelled. Instead they pay fines!! And you guessed right, they pay bribes too. The activists were told this by an outside source that bribes of Rs 300 per unit are collected.

Fire Risk at High-Rises

  • Sprinkler systems, Fire-alarms and refuge-floors (must be available after every seven floors) are absent or non-functional
  • Multiple basements for parking are 1) poorly ventilated and 2) difficult to access, both fire hazards. And as these are at the bottom of high-rises they constitute a danger to the whole building as lift shafts go down to the basement (in violation of fire-safety norms). In case of a fire the explosive fire, smoke and hot gases would travel unimpeded to each floor through the lift shaft.

You can imagine what the situation is like in temporary structures, like fairs and circuses. There was that horrible tragedy a couple of years ago in Meerut, when some large tents housing an exhibition caught fire. No fire safety norms were followed but unlike the case of Mumbai, it was city officials who had allowed it, not fire officials. A fire safety official did go to check what was happening but was ignored. This is what happened:

Organizers said, ‘We have the clearance from the district magistrate, so who are you?’ ” said Arun Chaturvedi, the city’s fire chief.

In Mumbai, it is the fire safety officials who allow breaking of fire safety norms.

So before you enter an exhibition tent or buy that apartment, or see a movie, best check if fire safety rules have been followed. Do you know what your building has or hasn’t? That is the question.

(Photo credits: The photograph is copyrighted to me)

(This post came about because of the information provided by the activist Krishnaraj Rao whose mail was forwarded to me by Vivek Khadpekar)

Related Reading: Uphaar tragedy – any lessons learnt?
Do we value life in India?

20 Comments leave one →
  1. August 13, 2008 10:46 am

    @ Nita:

    This is scary although not unusual. Indian homes too do not have their own fire extinguishers or fire alarms. Same in the offices.

    The brand of Hinduism followed by my family worships Agni – it warms, it feeds, it destroys.

    Good post.

  2. August 13, 2008 11:50 am

    My office is probably the worst prepared in case of a fire! There are 35 ppl who work here, there’s a single exit and no fire alarms! There’s isn’t a fire extinguisher also! πŸ˜€
    There’s a basement with a huuuuge diesel generator which looks like it’s gonna blow up any minute! So, yeah, I live everyday with the constant fear of burning to death! πŸ˜€

  3. August 13, 2008 12:00 pm

    Chalta hai! These are the two words that will bring down this country. Wait and watch. Oh wait those are the other two words….

    Jokes apart. Have you ever noticed how bad public security infrastructure is across the board. Look at our traffic, look at the police, look at our hospitals. I have been taking care of some very ill people in the past two years on some occasions. Having done that I must say I am now qualified as a part time nurse!

    People simply do not do their jobs properly, if they did there is no reason to believe we do not have the capability of having good public services. The police refuse to register complaints, the nurses refuse to nurse, the doctors are overworked, rude or absent. They all have excuses. The government refuses to govern. Do you see a pattern? People are left to fend for themselves, if your building is on fire form a bucket line. If you are sick and lonely, die in your apartment and they will pick you up when you begin to stink. Every man for himself! Oh and if you are a woman…..

  4. August 13, 2008 12:02 pm

    Actually my office building is also not safe. It is in posh market area in South Delhi. Few days back an expensive Italian restaurant caught fire due to electric fires. It took five fire ext vans to douse the fire. That got us thinking about our safety. We have some (about four) dry powder extinguishers but no sprinklers and hydrants. Hydrant is few blocks away near a disc. We have posted a request to the Director about his though.

    Other day we were discussing that since I sit near a window, I will have to climb down the steel rails just as in fear factor. Maybe I should take a demo soon.

  5. vivek mittal permalink
    August 13, 2008 2:26 pm

    I dont think nowadays they design any building without a fire protection system equipped with smoke detectors, and without emergency fire escape……BUT maintainence of such electronic systems is the key , which is hardly done….
    Yes the situation in old buildings without such systems must be worse to the extent of dangerous

  6. August 13, 2008 5:18 pm

    I think it is , i see those, break the glass wala sign but have never seen the extinguisher! so am not really sure! πŸ˜› πŸ™‚

  7. August 13, 2008 5:21 pm

    oh well i guess ppl aren’t bothered about their own safety…and bribery in this too…

  8. August 13, 2008 6:23 pm

    Shefaly, thanks. That is one important point, about fire extinguishers at home! No one in India has them. I remember I had bought one once, stuck in my kitchen, but when we moved, couldn’t find it again. So guilty here.

    Nikhil, I will pray for you. πŸ™‚

    odzer, yes India has problems but I am optimistic of the future.

    Poonam thanks for sharing that! I think you are lucky, because you are near a window! The greatest fear I have is when I travel in a lift.

    Sakhi, it’s a mystery to me why we don’t see fire as a real danger.

    Vishesh, I think people have no idea about it. It’s like we have no idea that accidents can happen if we drink and drive.

    Vivek M, that applies to new buildings but there are far more old buildings. In any case, as you said maintenance is the key.

  9. August 13, 2008 6:44 pm

    @ Nita: By law, we are to have carbon monoxide alarms and smoke alarms; fire extinguishers are advised and much info and advice is available if home-owners wish to buy them. In terms of market forces, many content and building insurers give discounts on premia for annually maintained safety and security features like alarms.

    Offices have much more stringent laws governing them re smoke alarms, sprinkler systems etc. No compliance can get people into serious trouble.

    This is once again a failure of enforcement in India. I found it scary to see newly designed malls where stairs are so obscure that in an emergency, only the frequent users of malls will know – if that – where to escape from.

    Thanks – this is a good post.

  10. August 13, 2008 8:13 pm

    People do not know the seriousness of a situation until one of their kith or kin is involved. My office in Bangalore had sprinklers, fire alarms and good fire exits. We also had fire drill once a while.

  11. August 13, 2008 8:33 pm

    There is National Building Code of India (NBC) 2005, issued by Bureau of Indian Standards which specifies the type of safeties to be provided in any type of building. Builders are bound to follow this. Government agencies are to ensure this. Here is a circular by A.P State, dated 13 January 2007 which is easy to understand the type of fire safeties required in a building. Here is the link to the circular as a pdf document.

  12. August 13, 2008 10:33 pm

    As rightly mentioned new commercial buildings have many safety features built in.

    In older commercial buildings there was no concept of safety features then. This could be mandated and enforced within a certain time frame. Existing occupants should take initiative in installing these equipment. I presume this is not happening because nobody is keen to invest in upgrading building facilities and a bribe is much cheaper to get the authorities to look the other way.

    As regards domestic dwellings, the position is different. Even new buildings are apparently without normal safety feattures built in.

    There is too much emphasis on cost savings and much of this is achieved by cutting corners. What is more important, buyers also do not insist on these safety measures. It suits both the builder and the buyer.

    Our safety consciousness is very low and we tend to regard any such measures as avoidable cost rather than as an investment. If you have observed closely, a human life is taken as very cheap.

    Linked to this is the fact that new sophisticated safety equipment are over priced and reliability is not always upto the mark.

    Why then blame the Fire Dept or the Municipal authorities?

  13. August 13, 2008 11:41 pm

    “To hell with a person’s life. Lets just exchange money”
    That is the crux of it all. Recently one of my friend was telling me that in UK, a person can sue a builder if a building does not have a lift because by not providing a lift, you are discriminating against the disabled.
    Responsibility has to come from within otherwise this nation is doomed.

  14. August 14, 2008 4:59 am

    nice post as always !
    the rot here is systemic and top down right from the anals of north block
    tell me if all is well and there is a fire
    how long will it take the fire brigade to reach your home
    if it is situated in a market area like say nagdevi street or chembur or bandra wt all the illegal stalls etc we have horrid roads – tiny bylanes crammed with illegal businesses and legal businesses overflowing on public space

    the more imp question to ask would be
    is ur building safe to live in ?
    Mumbai’s Shanghai Dreams Crumbling?

  15. August 14, 2008 8:33 am

    Shefaly, thanks. It never fails to amazes me when I hear of the laws that exist out there to protect the life of citizens and also the kind of enforcement there is.

    Dinesh Babu, yes I agree, people don’t give any importance to this issue unless they have a personal experience. It is same with driving rashly, which is very common in India. You are lucky to have an office with all those systems in place and plus fire drills.

    OldSailor, thanks.

    Mavin, yes you are right, we need to do things ourselves, and safety consciousness is very very low. A post like this might even be considered paranoia! πŸ™‚

    Amit, I agree, each one of us has to do something. How many of us even know what is lacking in our building or in our home?

    Prax, thanks. rot is the right word. as for mumbai’s shanghai dreams, I wonder why we even thought we could become shanghai. a long way to go.

  16. August 14, 2008 12:38 pm

    we never did
    the pm did dream a pipe dream so as to please the industry bigwigs who sit in mumbai

  17. August 14, 2008 7:44 pm

    good post..
    fire department ,builduing contracters,architects ..all are responsible …they neglect or ignore small minute things whihc can lead to a big problem..

    i an not surprised by the poor maintannece by fire always govt bodies never do their job properly

  18. August 15, 2008 7:00 pm

    I got trapped inside my medical college hostel building once while a fire had broken out at 1 am. That was some experience.
    Somehow I feel we treat life as very cheap. Any expenditure that is directed towards some future life saving system, but may not actually benefit people DAILY, only in the case of an emergency, is construed to be an extravagance, by all. Dead and injured people are just statistics to all those who were spared the horror at first hand.

  19. August 15, 2008 10:52 pm

    Prax, yes you are right, it was just rhetoric. But in any case always good to have dreams! πŸ™‚

    Arvind, thanks.

    Nomad, so you had that experience, how scary! I have never been that close to a fire but I think I see so many movies that my imagination scares me! I remember reading an article in the Readers Digest once about a film they made in the US to scare rash drivers. They picked out the most horrid gory shots (one was of a woman without a seatbelt thrown forward through the windshield, only she doesn’t get thrown out as it’s a minor accident and then her throat being neatly cut!) and apparently it got a lot of people to wear seat belts!

  20. Shailendra permalink
    August 17, 2008 11:09 am

    Shall I see the thread only as “gaging the fire dept performance ?” . If not, lack of education among everybody has lead to the present situation…the general perception that Fire dept , the law, the police should handle everything ! With some training and background in fire and safety, I had been able to manage two major fires in offing. Going further, we have taken some preventive measures. Subjects like environement and health, environment and safety need to be taughts regardless the education stream.
    Far more important is the preventive fire management, much of which is in our hands provided we have the attitude for it. Attitude gets built with a good exposure !!

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