A Brigade Under Fire

The challenges Mumbai Fire Brigade faces are increasing with the city’s growth. With mushrooming highrise buildings,spread of slum pockets and severely stretched infrastructure,firefighters find their task getting more uphill by the day. Stuti Shukla and Alison Saldanha look at these challenges,as well as the possible solutions the Fire Brigade has suggested to make the force more effective.

Published: November 20, 2013 5:29:29 am

Stuti shukla,Alison Saldanha

A staggering 23,942 incidents of fire and 57,192 other rescue calls from across the city over the past five years kept the Mumbai Fire Brigade (MFB) on its toes. Together,these have claimed 1,281 lives,of which over 150 were lost due to fire breakouts alone. From rescuing birds to being involved in firefighting and rescue operations during a terror attack,the Fire Brigade is amongst the first responders in a variety of disasters.

Moreover,the increasing vertical development of the city,slum pockets getting denser by the day,cramped market places,and a perennially choked road network has hampered effective firefighting of this uniformed force.

Despite being equipped with state-of-the-art machinery and a 2,478-person strong force,a number of internal and external factors ail the 125-year-old Fire Brigade,a wing of the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC). While fire officials admit laxity on the part of the department,they also blame builder and citizen apathy for the inadequate fire preparedness of the city. Also,poor management of fire records has led to limited research and development within the department over the years.

Till December 2008,the MFB trained its guns on only highrises in the city and inspected these based on the provisions of the Development Control Rules of 1991,Maharashtra Regional and Town Planning (MRTP) Act of 1966 and the National Building Code of 2005. However,once the Maharashtra Fire Prevention and Life Safety Measures Act of 2006 came into effect in December 2008,the scope of fire safety and enforcement was expanded to all structures in Maharashtra at large.

Since then,as per the guidelines of the Act,the Fire Brigade has begun mandatory inspections of all properties within the limits of Mumbai. “We have estimated that there are roughly 2.97 lakh properties that require inspection. It will take us some time to complete this task. So on a priority basis,we have begun inspecting highrise buildings,high footfall buildings such as malls,residential buildings,schools,and hospitals,” a senior fire official said.

As many as 605 notices in the island city and 1,944 notices in the suburbs were sent out by the Fire Brigade for non-compliance between January 1 and September 30 this year.

Lacunae in Scrutiny

Fire Brigade carries out scrutiny of buildings in two ways — passive and active firefighting — and in two stages — fire No Objection Certificate (NOC) at the time of planning and another NOC at the time of occupation,which is a part of the Occupation Certificate. Passive fire-safety features of a building include escape routes,fire lifts,fire-exits,refuge area and 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.

Fire officials say in today’s scenario,the Fire Brigade relies heavily on external firefighting because internal firefighting systems are inadequate. “Most fires can be prevented from escalating to major fires if internal fire safety systems are in place,” said P S Rahangdale,Deputy Chief Fire Officer. However,this is where the problem creeps in at large.

While in most cases,adequate fire-safety installations are not in place,in other cases they are not maintained. The hose-reel pipes are supposed to throw water at a pressure of at least 3.2 kg/sq cm if the fire has to be extinguished. However,due to ill-maintenance of the pipes,water comes out with limited force,rendering the entire system useless.

Moreover,80 per cent fires are caused due to short-circuits. “Ill-maintained and faulty wiring are the biggest cause of fires. If building owners strive to maintain their electrical circuits,these fires can be prevented,” said a senior fire official.

The first fire NOC is given at the planning stage to the developer/architect when the plans of the building are being finalised. This is when the Fire Brigade specifies the fire-safety features that the building has to incorporate. The final fire NOC is a part of the Occupation Certificate issued by the building proposals department.

“Before granting the final fire NOC,fire officials have to inspect the building physically. Unfortunately,this is where maximum discretion and corruption creeps in. Final NOCs are given without actual physical inspection. Moreover,periodical checks do not take place either,” said a fire official.

The Problem of Highrises

The vertical growth of the city has added to the woes of the Fire Brigade. Of the 605 notices served in the island city for violation of fire safety,268 were given to highrises alone. Similarly,659 highrises were inspected in the suburbs and all of them were served notices for inadequate fire safety.

According to DCR,a building with a height of 24 m (eight floors) and above is classified as highrise. Apart from the inadequate internal firefighting installations,highrises largely violate the norm that mandates builders to leave open space on all four sides of the building. “The open space is vital for positioning of vehicles during external firefighting. Owing to the space constraint in the city,this is where maximum discretion is exercised at the level of higher authorities,” said the official.

Buildings having a height between 24 m and 34 m need to have a six-metre open space patch on all four sides. For 34-45 m tall buildings,nine metres of space is mandatory and for buildings taller than 45 m,12-m space is mandatory. In most cases,the road outside the building is treated as open space and fire permissions are given.

Another major violation is the presence of two staircases for buildings which are higher than 70 m and buildings where the horizontal traveling distance is more than 22 m. “While commercial highrises adhere to the norm of two staircases,most residential towers flout this norm. In general too,commercial buildings are more prone to fire but at the same time,more fire-proof. In residential buildings,people have to put in their own money and hence compliance is generally low,” said the official.

Moreover,the tallest ladder in possession of the Fire Brigade goes up to a height of 72 m and in case of a fire at a greater height,external firefighting will not be possible.

Government Buildings

The Brigade inspected 780 government buildings in the island city and 597 in the eastern and western suburbs,yet notices for failing to comply with fire-safety norms are not issued if found in violation. “As these are government buildings,the Act does not require us to issue notices. We do suggest ways for upgrading fire-safety measures to the authorities though,” a fire official said.

To address this problem,following the Mantralaya fire of 2012 that killed 11 and injured 26,Municipal Commissioner Sitaram Kunte in his budget speech for the current fiscal year proposed the establishment of a Fire Safety Cell. According to Kunte,this cell will ensure effective implementation of the 2006 Maharashtra Fire Act. “It will give special attention to government buildings and high footfall buildings. It will monitor the property owners’ statutory obligations to conduct bi-annual fire inspections by registered agencies and timely compliance of deficiencies,” the commissioner had announced. However,almost a year later,the BMC is still in the process of the setting up the cell that will include 33 station officers and assistant station officers. A similar effort by the Mumbai Heritage Conservation Committee and the MFB in 2012 to prevent the occurrence of fires at heritage structures,especially public buildings,also proved futile.

The heritage committee had formed a sub-committee of fire officers and conservation architects to inspect heritage buildings and suggest feasible measures within the scope of the old structure. However,the committee was disbanded within a year. Only one building was inspected in its short tenure — the Bombay High Court — that too on the request of the court.

“As per the provisions of the Maharashtra Fire Act,building owners must approach the Fire Brigade for inspection. Considering the buildings were built at a different time,they do not have the capacities for the modern-day fire safety measures. However,so far no building owner (including government buildings) has approached us. Instead,when there are small fire incidents,we offer suggestions even though we are not obligated to,” said deputy chief fire officer S A Kale.

Firefighting in Slums

While the MFB does not maintain data on the kinds of structures that have caught fire,informal settlements,which account for close to 55 per cent of the city’s population,have been identified for their susceptibility to fires. In fact,two of the three most challenging fires the MFB has dealt with in the last four years have taken place in the slums of Behrampada (2009) and Garib Nagar (2011) in Bandra,which are incidentally located a few metres away from each other in the most pricey part of suburban Mumbai real estate.

Apart from difficulty in manoeuvering through narrow approaches within slum settlements,the construction material of slums itself is prone to fire. “There is a lot of combustible material in slums. The materials used for constructing kachcha houses are flammable and offer little protection to the residents. Also,in many of these cases,electricity is stolen from neighbouring areas,because of which the wiring is faulty leading to short circuits,which in almost 80 per cent of all fire incidents is the main cause for fires in Mumbai,” an official said.

The MFB has also identified small industrial processing units near slum areas as a major cause for fires.

Especially vulnerable and endangering among these are the chemical,manufacturing and dyeing units located particularly in Kamathipura,Dharavi,Kurla CST and New Mandala in Mankhurd.

Recognising these liabilities,Kunte in his current fiscal year budget also directed the MFB to consult experts and devise a “Slum Fire Prevention and Fire Fighting System comprising of community awareness and tailor-made machinery and methodologies for fire-fighting” in these areas.

Budget

Despite being an essential and life-saving service of the BMC,the fund allocation for the Fire Brigade is rather small. However,the brigade does not seem to know how to spend the money.

In the last the three years,figures from the Fire Brigade show that the budget for plant and machinery has consistently declined to eventually less than one per cent in 2012-2013. This budget executed by the Chief Fire Officer pertains to the acquisition of equipment and vehicles.

Till date,the Fire Brigade equipment inventory shows that the brigade has 218 transport vehicles,57 fire engines,32 water tankers,18 ladders,28 ambulances,five rescue vans,three breathing apparatus,43 jeeps,six rescue boats and one command vehicle.

This dismal expenditure also has its effect on the response time to fires in the city.

Present Infrastructure and its effect on Response Time

While internationally,response time for fires is at the most four minutes,in Mumbai,the time taken to reach the destination is twice the estimate (8 to 10 minutes) for the island city and four times longer (15 to 18 minutes) for the suburbs.

“There are effectively two ways to reduce the response time. One is to either reduce traffic on roads,which is our major cause for delay. The other solution is to build more fire stations. Currently,concrete steps in either direction have yet to be taken,” a senior fire official said.

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. “There is a chronic shortage of fire stations in the western suburbs. The response time is the highest here. While six fire stations in the eastern suburbs may seem less,we have to take into account that this part also includes large open space areas such as Godrej Colony,” a fire official said.

In 2012,the MFB in a gap analysis survey found the need for 26 additional fire stations at different locations across the city that are expected to plug delays in response time. The average space required for setting up a fire station is 2,500-5,000 sq m. Despite Kunte announcing a timeline of five years for establishing these fire stations,land crunch is said to be slowing down the process.

“We have now decided to incorporate construction of 26 additional fire stations in the Development Plan for 2014-2034. This will allow us to overcome the current problems of lack of available space for construction,” Additional Municipal Commissioner Manisha Mhaiskar in-charge of the Mumbai’s disaster management cell and Fire Brigade said.

At present,if a fire takes place in Ghatkopar and since the area does not have its own fire station,the fire brigade has to send in forces from the neighbouring Vikhroli and Kurla fire stations,which considerably compromises the response time.

As an interim solution,the MFB has begun automating its fire trucks. “We felt it is better to have automated vehicles,as the drivers during a rescue mission are under a lot of pressure to reach the spot in time. We decided to acquire these to reduce the possibility of accidents and to keep stress and fatigue levels down. We received the first vehicle in 2010. It reduces stress levels by 80 per cent but the costs involved are high as automated trucks also guzzle more fuel,” said Chaudhari,adding that as the objective is to save lives,cost concerns are secondary.

Currently,the MFB has 10 automated vehicles. Acquiring more vehicles comes with a 10 per cent cost escalation in the annual budget that the civic administration is said to be reluctant in taking up. The Fire Brigade has prepared a tender for 16 more automated vehicles to be acquired through this fiscal budget. “The tender is currently with the administration awaiting necessary approvals. It is likely to take six months for processing and acquiring them,” Chaudhari said.

Mhaiskar said,“There is a problem in acquisition of vehicles as according to the new rules,we are only allowed to acquire Euro IV vehicles and currently there is a shortage of these in the market. However,this budget is only for expansion — our Fire Brigade in its current strength is also well-equipped.” She added that about eight months ago,the Fire Brigade filled in a number of vacant posts. “Whatever posts are yet to be filled are taking time because there is litigation involved,” Mhaiskar said.

Vacancies in the department

The Brigade is facing a shortage of employees. Currently,of the 2,812 posts in the MFB,334 are vacant. These include the post of the Chief Fire Officer for which A N Verma is the current in-charge. The administration is yet to appoint the new head of force after the previous CFO retired in October. In early 2012,former municipal commissioner Subodh Kumar was happy to announce the inclusion of women into the MFB force but women firefighters have yet to enter the Brigade in a serious way. The MFB,citing low application rate,has employed about 10 women firefighters.

The presence of three politically backed firemen unions severely curtails the firefighting services the MFB has been trained to provide. “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,putting us in a difficult spot. Fire officers are afraid to send their men into dangerous blazes fearing political repercussions,” said a senior fire official.

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