Playing with fire

The Bhubaneswar hospital tragedy shows that rules exist in violation and it’s not hard to get away with murder.

By: Editorial | Published:October 19, 2016 12:02 am

On Monday at least 19 critically ill patients in a private hospital in Bhubaneswar met with a horrific end. They did not die of their ailments but were consumed by a fire that broke out around 7.30 p.m. in the dialysis unit of SUM hospital. The blaze that engulfed the floor housing the private hospital’s ICU has been ascribed to a short-circuit. Preliminary reports note that three officials of the hospitals have been suspended. But it should be a given that since a hospital’s main function is to look after the sick, those in charge of it should have a heightened sensitivity to safety. Seen this way, it’s outrageous that a spark ravaged the ICU where the hospital’s most vulnerable patients were undergoing treatment.

The Bhubaneswar hospital fire is the second such incident in five years. In 2011, 90 people died after a fire broke out in the ICU and orthopedic units of a Kolkata hospital. Investigations into the tragedy revealed a litany of violations. An illegal storeroom in the hospital’s basement was packed with inflammable articles like chemicals and medical waste. The hospital lacked adequate fire-fighting equipment. Even then, the hospital’s staff informed the fire brigade and the police an hour-and-a-half after the fire broke out. AMRI Hospital’s construction plan violated the National Building Code, 2005. The 500-bed hospital did not have a proper ventilation system, which caused many patients to suffocate to death. The National Building Code says the area around a hospital must be kept clear to allow easy movement of fire tenders. The AMRI tragedy was exacerbated because the narrow lane leading to the hospital delayed the operations of the fire brigade.

Part four of the National Building Code, which runs into more than 80 pages, has detailed specifications on fire safety. But most often, authorities do not even take note when buildings violate this code. After the AMRI tragedy, the Kolkata Municipal Corporation and West Bengal’s Fire and Emergency Department traded charges for letting the private hospital run in violation of fire safety rules. The AMRI and SUM are just two examples of fire-safety violations. A fire in a Mumbai hotel killed eight last year, the same year, fire in another Mumbai building claimed seven lives and the Uphaar fire tragedy of 1997 is well-known. That fire safety is low on the list of our priorities is attested by the India Risk Survey of 2015. The FICCI and Pinkerton report noted a 97.5 per cent shortage of fire stations, 96 per cent shortfall of fireman and 80 per cent deficit in fire tenders and rescue vehicles in the country.