Huddled around a hookah, firemen at Bawana industrial area’s station 45 play cards at the admin block as the air hangs heavy with the smell of chemicals. Not a single fire-related call has been received for over eight hours — a rarity at the station, which otherwise reported 1,500 calls in a year or an average of four a day. The station, at the forefront of putting out fires in Bawana, received 45 fire-related calls last month. One of them, on January 20, was about a blaze at an illegal firecracker packaging unit in Sector 5, which claimed 17 lives.
It was the third emergency call the firemen received that day — they had put out a fire in Alipur in the morning, before moving to two plastic factories in sectors 1 and 3. Responsible for more than 16,000 factories in the industrial area, station 45 is tasked with keeping 3 lakh workers and 25,000 entrepreneurs safe.
The station has 25 firemen and officers, though it needs 50. There are 14 fire operators, six leading firemen, one sub-officer, one station officer and three fire tender drivers. According to a senior fire official, the batch that graduated in 2013 was the last to be recruited at the station. Many of the firemen have been brought in from other stations.
As per the Delhi Fire Services (DFS), 814 vacancies had been advertised in 2014, with the Delhi Staff Selection Board tasked with filling them. “But the vacancies have been stuck in a legal matter at the Central Administrative Tribunal, after many candidates claimed there were discrepancies in the selection process,” said chief fire officer (DFS) Atul Garg.
This means almost everyone has to multi-task, with fire tenders occasionally driven by fire operators — an entry-level position tasked with setting up water hoses and maintaining fire tenders. With at least 13 people needed in a single shift, firemen often work double shifts. “We work for 24 hours. If a fire breaks out before we head home, we can’t leave. We put in another 24 hours then,” a fire operator said.
Many also complained that promotions are hard to come by — a majority of fire operators have not been made leading fire operators even after nine years of service.
Lack of equipment
The station has four vehicles — two fire tenders and two water bowsers. According to the DFS, each station must have a motor pump vehicle, hydraulic platforms, rescue responders, a quick reaction team, light vans, breakdown lorries, carbon dioxide foam tenders, petrol vans and a control van.
Instead of carbon dioxide foam tenders, firefighters make do with two foam drums with a capacity of 20 litres. “The foam drums help cut the oxygen supply. We need them for fires at plastic, rubber and chemical factories. The drums are sufficient but when simultaneous fires break out, they are inadequate,” a fire operator said.
Most of the fires in January at the industrial area were due to short circuits, Delhi State Industrial and Infrastructure Development Corporation records show. But none of the firemen used shock-proof gloves, instead having to make do with standard DFS uniforms, a helmet, and rubber boots. “We sustain minor burns and other injuries sometimes. But, thankfully, we have never had a death at the station,” said the driver of a fire tender.
According to norms, all firemen must have a fireproof suit and goggles — which they are seldom provided. “Of every four fire calls, two are rescue operations. We douse ourselves in water before a rescue operation,” a leading fireman said.
Gaining access to 250 sq m factories is particularly difficult, said a fireman, as owners shut the main door to deter thieves. The only way to get inside is to use hydraulic ladders. “But the station does not have hydraulic ladders… it is used to douse fires only in high-rise buildings. If we require them, we ask the Rohini fire station. It takes 30 minutes to reach us,” a fire operator said.
While every fire tender has two oxygen cylinders, firefighters seldom use them and rely instead on handkerchiefs to cover their mouths. “One oxygen cylinder lasts 20 minutes. We have six men in a vehicle and two oxygen cylinders are not enough. Putting out a fire in Bawana takes at least three hours, so we don’t use the cylinders unless it’s an emergency,” a fire operator said.
Element of surprise
With most industries in the area lacking signages, safety measures or licences, firemen The Indian Express spoke to said they fear for their lives every time they attend a call. A 29-year-old fire operator said he used to keep track of factories in each sector before he lost count.
With factories changing hands frequently and functioning on old licences, the firemen don’t know if the auto parts factory they are walking into is now a chemical factory. “When we leave the station, we are unable to strategise fire-fighting techniques until we reach the spot and ask the workers. Many factories are packed with raw material and it takes us ages to get through them,” he said.
The only solace for the firemen — who claim to have not received a single medical check-up at the station — is that none of them have developed any serious breathing problems. “I just have a year left till retirement. Thankfully, I am still healthy and alive,” said sub-officer Suresh.