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City’s trial by fire

Raw statistics with the BMC reveal that 21,379 cases of fire have been reported since 2009 till now.

A major fire broke out last week in Lotus Business Park. A major fire broke out last week in Lotus Business Park.

On an average, Mumbai reported more than 10 incidents — small and big — of fire everyday in the last five years. Raw statistics with the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation reveal that 21,379 cases of fire have been reported since 2009 till now. These claimed 1,281 lives and injured as many as 4,027 people. The Mumbai Fire Brigade, the first responder to a fire incident, is however, awaiting a major upgrade, finds out Tanushree Venkatraman

It is not that the Mumbai Fire Brigade is ill-equipped or has inadequate firefighting machinery, but there are many internal and external factors which hamper the progress and development of the 125-year old institution. The brigade not only deals with high stress levels and red-tape in the civic administration but also suffers because of apathy of residents and builders towards fire safety, heavy unionisation of its forces and a poor system of record-keeping that leaves little scope to learn from past mistakes.

“The major responsibility of any disaster management department is to analyse the incident, understand the shortages in the system, learn from its mistakes and make recommendations so that these are not repeated. Currently, both the BMC and the brigade refuse to acknowledge this crucial gap in its disaster management, which has worsened as they do not recruit trained professionals for the job,” says I C Sisodia, former chief vigilance officer and disaster management expert at BMC.

On July 18, a fire broke out on the 22nd floor of Lotus Business Park, a glass-facade building in Andheri (West). While the fire was initially not considered to be major, the fire brigade eventually took seven hours to bring it under control as the blaze escalated, spreading from the 13th to the 20th floor. The fire claimed the life of one fireman and trapped 32 others on the structure’s top floors. Investigations into the incident reveal that the building flouted several norms of passive and active fire-fighting.
The fire brigade carries out scrutiny of buildings in two ways — passive and active firefighting — and issues No Objection Certificates (NOC) in two stages. The first NOC is issued at the time of planning and the final one at the time of occupation as part of the building’s Occupation Certificate (OC).

Passive fire-safety features of a building include escape routes, fire lifts, fire exits, refuge area and provision of space around the building. Active firefighting features of a building include smoke detectors, alarms, riser systems, sprinkler system, functional hose-reels and a water tank.
“Almost 90 per cent of the buildings in the city flout both active and passive norms. In many cases, even if the active fire-fighting system is there, it is defunct creating problems during rescue and escalating even a minor fire,” says a senior fire official.

The space around buildings is also a crucial part of passive fire-fighting. Buildings with a height between 24 metres and 34 metres need to have a six-metre open space on all four sides. For 34-45 metre tall buildings, nine metres of space is mandatory and for buildings taller than 45m, it is 12 metres. However in most cases, the road outside the building is treated as open space and fire permissions are given.

With the building’s internal firefighting system out of commission, at the time of a crisis, the fire brigade must rely heavily on its own external firefighting systems, which leads to a delay in the rescue response at a time when the first few minutes count the most. “If the passive fire-safety in the buildings is well-maintained, half the battle is won. If internal systems function well, we can ensure there is no escalation of a fire and rescue operations are carried out without difficulty. The firemen can also make use of the equipment there itself instead of relying on its external system and waiting for larger snorkels and fire engines to arrive. Most major fire incidents could have been avoided if the structure’s internal system was maintained properly,” another fire officer says.

In two years since October 2012, the fire brigade has issued notices to just about 1,350 high-rise buildings of 3.8 lakh structures across Mumbai for failing to comply with fire-safety norms as mandated in the Maharashtra Fire Prevention and Life Safety Measures Act, 2009. The brigade estimates there are around 8,000-10,000 high-rises in the city which require inspection of fire-safety systems.

FIRE AUDITS

In 2012, following a massive fire in the Mantralaya building, the BMC made it mandatory for all buildings — residential, commercial and high-rises — to submit certified fire audit reports from listed licensing authorities to the fire brigade twice a year, in January and July. These reports are to state the status of fire-safety equipment in a building and compliance with norms.

As per the state Fire Act, it is also mandatory for all buildings with more than six floors (24 meters) to get a fire-safety audit done by an agency licensed by Maharashtra Fire Services and submit the report to the fire brigade authorities.

“There are 457 licensing authorities that residents can approach to check the fire-fighting system installed in their buildings. But since the implementation of this rule, less than one per cent of the buildings have complied with the Act,” says S A Kale, deputy chief fire officer, Mumbai Fire Brigade. As per the fire brigade’s data, only 17 housing societies from the island city, 15 from the eastern suburbs and 13 from the western suburbs have submitted fitness certificates for the fixed fire-fighting system installed in their buildings so far this year.

However, the fire brigade’s own dismal account of fire incidents and buildings flouting fire-safety norms is indicative of its poor attempts at record-keeping and analysis for improving its performance in rescue operations. This has been attributed to the fact that there is no differentiation between operational and inspection units within the brigade. Experts say that the 2,800-strong force, burdened with more than 17,000 rescue calls a year, needs to recruit more officers to conduct inquiries after any incident.

“While the operational side of the unit is trained in evacuation, protection, fire prevention and rescue operations, the administrative side should start inspecting buildings for regular fire audits every six months and physically inspect sites before granting a no-objection certificate. The Mantralaya fire in June 2012 escalated because the building did not have a mandatory emergency exit plan, which the fire brigade could have used in its plan of action,” Sisodia adds.

However, citing a shortage of manpower, officials from the fire brigade have long maintained that inspecting more than 3.8 lakh structures is impossible. “It is the responsibility of the owners of the buildings to look into the fire safety of their respective structures. We still conduct inspections for places with higher footfalls in the city like malls, theatres, hospitals, schools, industrial estates and commercial buildings, among others,” Kale says.

Other than issuing notices to the structures for failing to comply with norms, the brigade has no teeth to actually prosecute the erring societies. After a notice is issued, the brigade passes the matter to the the BMC’s legal and building proposals departments for prosecution owners of the structures. To date, the civic body is yet to take concrete action in a single case of a structure flouting safety rules.

“Unfortunately, the Act does not provide for any legal action against citizens and hence, very few comply with it. What people do not realise is that the Act is meant for their safety and security. We also have to blame the state government and its urban development department in this regard. Apart from the Act, neither of the agencies has looked at its implementation,” says M V Deshmukh, director, Maharashtra Fire Services, and fire adviser to the state government. It may be noted that after every major fire incident in Mumbai, the chief minister has ordered a probe into the incident though no tangible results have come out of this exercise.

POLICY PARALYSIS

After the 26/11 Mumbai terror attacks, the state had constituted the Merani Committee, headed by former Public Works Department (PWD) secretary M V Merani, to analyse the security and disaster preparedness of Mumbai and recommend measures to increase safety and protection of all kinds of buildings.

On safety, the report contained six main points on fire protection – evacuation, surveillance, physical protection of the systems, architectural control and mandatory audits.

“We recommended an alternative method of evacuation through a fire escape chute at the window of the building that could evacuate 25 people in a minute. In the report, we also said it was mandatory to have planned emergency escape routes and the security in the building should be trained to know all such routes. However, of all the recommendations made, hardly 25 per cent have actually been implemented or converted into safety policies,” Sisodia says.

Similarly, after two major fire incidents in glass-facade buildings, the fire brigade itself prepared a policy two years ago for specific fire norms to be followed while constructing such structures.

While builders opt for glass facades for an aesthetic appeal, these prove to be a nightmare for fire-safety and rescue operations. Glass facades block a structure’s ventilation and worsen the fire’s intensity. The brigade’s new policy mandates that the refuge floor in these structures will have to be left open-air to provide breathing space. The guidelines also recommend openings on every floor at a distance of 50 feet each. The fire escape windows must have a minimum width and height of 1.5 metres. As the buildings do not have many access points, the guidelines also suggest that the windows open automatically when smoke is detected.

These tentative guidelines, drawn up by experts and civic officials from the building proposals department, are still doing the rounds of various departments of the BMC. It is only after the death of a fireman in the Lotus Business Park that the BMC was jolted to look into the stringent policy for glass-facade buildings in the city.

INFRASTRUCTURE GAPS

Internationally, the response time during incidents of fire is a maximum four minutes. In Mumbai, the time taken to reach the destination is twice the estimate (8-10 minutes) for the island city and four times longer (15 to 18 minutes) for the suburbs.

“We are too few for too many people in the city. Ideally, there should be one fire station every 4 kms in the city. But, we have one every 7 kms, which increases the response time in reaching the spot. Another way to solve the problem is to reduce the traffic on roads, which is a major trouble in reaching the spot on time,” says a senior fire official.

At present, the fire brigade has 33 stations in Mumbai — 15 in the island city, six in the eastern suburbs and 12 in the western suburbs. After a gap analysis survey in 2012, the fire brigade found the need for 26 additional fire stations to plug delays in response time. The average space required for setting up a fire station is 2,500-5,000 sq m. Despite the municipal commissioner announcing a timeline of five years for establishing these fire stations, land crunch is said to be slowing down the process.

“We have incorporated development of 26 additional fire station in the Development Plan of 2014-2034. This is the only way we can overcome the problem of land crunch for the construction of these additional fire stations,” says Sunil Nesarikar, deputy chief fire officer.

“If a fire breaks out in Ghatkopar, fire engines have to be sent from Vikhroli as there is no fire station there. The fire brigade also doesn’t have enough storage capacity for safety gear and equipment except in Byculla and the Wadala offices. This forces the firemen to go to the Byculla office every time to collect equipment,” says Sisodia.

As an interim solution to the problem, the fire brigade has planned 10 mini fire stations to bridge the gap until the new stations are built. Four of these will be in the island city and three each in the eastern and western suburbs. The mini fire engines will be the size of a jeep and will be designed to carry 300 litres of water as against 4,500 litres in regular fire engines. The fire engines will also have water mist technology that will be able to pierce through a wall to douse fire on the other side.

As against a batch of seven to 10 firemen deputed for a fire engine at regular fire stations, the mini fire tenders will have around five firefighters, including a driver. The big fire stations require at least 2,500-5,000 sqm space, while the new mini fire stations can be parked at any BMC premise that has a parking zone. In addition to a fire engine, a small room will be constructed in a corner of the premises, which will act as an office for the two-three fire officers deputed for the task.

“The tenders for the constructions of these new fire stations are already in process and we can expect it to start functioning within a year from now,” says Kale.

The brigade is also facing a shortage of employees. Currently, of a total of 2,800 posts in the city fire brigade, 334 are vacant. This includes the post of the Chief Fire Officer for which A N Verma is the current in-charge.
The administration has yet to appoint the new head of force after the previous CFO retired in October this year. While in early 2012, former municipal commissioner Subodh Kumar was happy to announce the inclusion of women into the fire brigade, they are yet to enter the force in a serious way. At present, the city fire brigade, citing low application rate, has employed about 13 women firefighters.

The presence of three politically backed firemen unions severely curtails the fire-fighting services the force has been trained to provide.

“Essentially, uniformed services should not have unions but here we do. The unions make a ruckus whenever a fireman is injured or killed in the line of duty, thus putting us in a difficult spot. Fire officers are afraid to send their men into dangerous blazes fearing the political repercussions later,” says a senior fire official.

WAY FORWARD

Following criticism over the brigade’s inability to douse the July 18 fire in time, the BMC has now set up a fire safety regulatory cell that will audit and scrutinise fire-safety mechanisms in high-rises and buildings having a high footfall. The cell is expected to begin work in six months.

The civic body is also slowly waking up to the fact that its data system for fire and disaster management is in dire need of an upgrade. “We realise that so far our system of maintaining records has been poor. We have identified the lapses and are working towards improving it,” says additional municipal commissioner Sanjay Deshmukh.

The brigade has also invited an expression of interest to set up a state-of-the-art fire alert system which will not only record data online but also maintain video footage of fire rescue missions for further research and analysis.

“To effectively plug the infrastructure and policy gaps, we need great political backing in the BMC and from the unions. Currently, there is a lot of corruption at every step in the city’s fire protection system, right from the acquisition of a fire NOC to the posting of a fire officer. The power to actually prosecute owners/societies for non-compliance has been non-existent because of a lack of political will coupled with public apathy,” says a senior civic official.

tanushree.venkatraman@expressindia.com

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