The wireless set crackles and information about a fire at a house near Turkman Gate is relayed to the fire operator at Jama Masjid’s Pai Walan fire station. It takes less that a minute for six firefighters from the Delhi Fire Services (DFS) to board a fire tender. But instead of rushing to the spot, they spend the next few minutes arguing with tourist bus drivers and rickshaw pullers, who have blocked the exit by parking vehicles right outside the station.
A fight ensues, tempers flare, and the firefighters retreat. The Darya Ganj fire station attends to the Turkman Gate fire, while firefighters from Pai Walan head to file a police complaint. No lives were lost in the fire, but the house was gutted. Last week, four workers died in a fire at an illegal cloth packaging unit in Karol Bagh after they could not escape through the narrow doorway.
Fire tenders, too, could not reach the unit because of narrow lanes through which only small vehicles can pass. Complicating matters further was the fact that firemen were wrongly informed that the blaze was inside a house. It was only when the lead fireman entered that he realised it was an illegal unit, which contained fire accelerants.
Since April, the DFS has attended 20,168 fire calls in the capital, where 194 persons have lost their lives in a blaze or building collapse. According to Chief Fire Officer, DFS, Atul Garg, “with the right temperature, oxygen supply and accelerants, it takes just four minutes for a small ember to grow in volume and engulf a one-room house”. When it comes to a building collapse, DFS officers have been trained to rescue trapped people within 45 minutes. Also known as the golden hour, this is how long it usually takes for a person trapped under the rubble to be crushed under its weight, DFS officials said.
But unplanned colonies, narrow streets, incorrect parking, crowded markets and buildings without access roads make it increasingly hard for the DFS to attend to a call in time. Further, without any building plans at their disposal, putting out a fire means running the risk of being blindsided by cylinder explosions, chemicals that can knock one unconscious, hanging cables and falling debris. The Indian Express visited five fire stations over a week to understand the challenges firemen here face every time they answer the call of duty.
If a fire tender is able to move 200 metres in under 20 minutes at Teliwara fire station in Sadar Bazaar, firefighters consider it a “good day”.
A five-member team attending a call in the locality managed to get out of the station and cross the usually crowded toy market in under 10 minutes. But their relief turned to disappointment when they found their way blocked by bullock carts, packed e-rickshaws and transporter trucks.
“It should take us 10 minutes to pass, but it has taken 20. This is a daily hassle,” said Anil Kumar, driver of the fire tender, staring at a herd of cows chewing cud in the middle of the road. By the time they reach, the fire has been doused and all that is left to do is return to base.
The Teliwara fire station, with a staff of 20, attends to over 30 fire calls every month. Many pertain to fires in godowns containing ceramic products, cosmetics and LPG cylinders.
But it is not like any other station: Since reaching narrow lanes here is next to impossible, firefighters have to fix 40-metre hose reels to their vehicle, which has a 5,000-litre capacity. Fire hydrants would make life easier, but there aren’t any in the area. Since many places where fires break out do not have access roads, firemen park the tenders on the main road and lug the 25-kg hose reels towards the smoking building, fixing connections along the way. “I keep running 40-metre sprints back and forth to the water tender, fixing hose reels until I reach the spot. With no access points, I sometimes climb several stairways looking for the perfect terrace before I can spray water from the hose,” said Desh Raj, a sub-officer at the station. “Most of the times, the building is gutted in the fire.”
With no underground water reservoir at Teliwara fire station — a requisite facility at every station — firefighters have to take trips to Rani Jhansi Road fire station two km away, or Chanderwal water plant around 12 km away, to replenish their stock of water, said the DFS.
Going in blind
At Prasad Nagar fire station in Karol Bagh, leading fireman Subhash Arya still shudders when he thinks about the mentally unstable man who set his house on fire in Bupa Nagar, a few hours before the Karol Bagh fire. “He and his mother were both inside. When I reached, I asked him if there was a cylinder in the house and he just smiled. As I tried to enter, a loud blast went off,” Arya said. To enter a house and douse a blaze, firefighters need building plans — something they seldom have access to.
“All fire safety inspections are carried out by an Assistant Divisional Officer and a Divisional Officer from the DFS. But station officers from fire stations do not accompany them during inspections, because of which they are unaware of building plans… they are not sent the plans either,” said Prasad Nagar station officer Mohinder Singh.
This means a firefighter would not know where the kitchen and gas cylinders are, if there is a meter board next to a stairwell, or the storage location in a chemical factory. In case of the Karol Bagh blaze, commercial units were running at residential premises. According to data given by the Delhi State Industrial and Infrastructure Development Corporation Ltd (DSIIDC) to the three municipal corporations in August this year, there are over 50,000 factories running from residential areas in Delhi.
“The North MCD has sealed around 800, while another 1,000 have stopped running. But a large chunk still exists without fire clearances or other safety measures,” a senior official of the North civic body said. Firefighters then have to rely on clues handed out by the caller or the building owner. But occupants and owners are seldom at the spot, and callers often panic while explaining the location and extent of the fire.
“Sometimes, callers give the wrong address, leaving fire tenders to ask for directions as they are not equipped with a GPS. Due to lack of knowledge about the fire services number (101), the first call is made to police, which is then routed to DFS headquarters at Barakhamba Road. Messages are then relayed to the appropriate fire station, taking up precious minutes,” an official said.
At unauthorised colonies, officials said, even house numbers sometimes don’t follow a system, forcing firemen to knock on a door in the neighbourhood to seek directions. “Once, I had to attend a fire call at house number 256 in Baljeet Nagar. We reached house number 255 thinking the fire would be nearby, but the house in question was half-a-kilometre away,” said station officer Singh.
Fire chief Garg added that the Delhi government has sanctioned the DFS to procure a drone to conduct aerial reconnaissance of fire spots and ascertain the best escape routes and entry points for firefighters.
Low on manpower
Almost all fire stations complain of staff shortage, and at the moment, most firefighters put in 24-hour shifts. There are over 1,900 firefighters operating out of 56 fire stations in Delhi, compared to the Mumbai fire brigade with a total strength of around 2,800 for 34 fire stations.
The Novelty cinema fire station at SP Marg handles fire-related calls in old Delhi. Nestled in the middle of a cloth market, electrical parts stores and decades-old buildings, the station attends to around three calls daily. The station rarely uses a water bowser with a 12,000-litre capacity, as the vehicle would never make it inside lanes narrower than 12 feet, an officer said. The DFS has procured 40 small water tanker vehicles with 5,000-litre capacity to navigate small lanes, and every fire station has a DFS bike equipped with carbon dioxide foam tenders.
When handling fires caused by electricity, firefighters wait for BSES officials to cut power supply. “People do not understand that we cannot immediately start firefighting. We use carbon dioxide foam tenders, but that is like first-aid. While we wait for BSES, people get impatient,” said fire official Joginder Rana.
A BSES spokesperson explained: “In case of a major fire, power supply to the affected area is switched off remotely from the grid. Parallelly, our teams reach the area to assess the ground situation. In case of a minor fire, our field teams reach the area within 10 minutes and switch off the power supply locally. The delay, in rare cases, is not from the side of the discom. It may be on account of heavy congestion in the area, encroachment, heavy crowds near the site or entry prohibition by authorities.”
Fire officials added that in some areas, such as the Walled City or the markets in Chandni Chowk, the walls are so thin that they melt during a fire. Instead, they recommended at least 38-inch walls that can tolerate a blaze for around 10 minutes. In case of a building collapse, the DFS can’t call for cranes or bulldozers as most localities do not have access roads. “When I used to attend building collapse calls in such localities, we had to remove the debris with a shovel. Things have not changed even today,” Garg said.
Back at the Pai Walan station, firefighters are angry. Their fight with transport bus owners over, they feel powerless that they cannot remove encroachments. This, despite Section 27 of the Delhi Fire Service Act (2007) clearly stating: “The director or any officer of the fire service (can) direct the removal of encroachments or objects likely to cause risk of fire, or any obstruction to firefighting.” Section 28 of the Act also empowers firefighters to remove people blocking a fire scene, and even arrest a person impeding a firefighting operation. But all of this is only on paper.
In the absence of an immediate solution, firemen turn their attention to another niggling issue: A prankster who has been sending them on wild goose chases after calling them about trapped birds. “There have been at least two-three prank calls. We have no option but to head there,” said an official.