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Kamala Mills, one year on: As city skyline changes, firemen face new problems with outdated equipment

Fires in a highrise building or in an area surrounded by highrises often involve these ‘dark spots’ for radio signals, something that all firemen in Mumbai are worried about.

Written by Laxman Singh | Mumbai |
December 27, 2018 1:22:17 am
Kamala Mills, one year on: As city skyline changes, firemen face new problems with outdated equipment The Kamala Mills compound. (File)

HIGHRISES and the unique challenges they pose to fire-fighters, including hampering wireless communications and inevitable delays in responding to fire calls owing to traffic congestion, are among the biggest fears of Mumbai’s fire brigade, the country’s oldest organised fire-fighting system.

The death of fireman Nitin Ivalekar at the Lotus Business Park in Andheri in 2014 is an example many cite – Ivalekar lost contact with his team when he was inside the building during fire-fighting operations. He was isolated and later found dead.

A senior official from the fire brigade said, “Since the last few years, as construction of highrises has increased, there are spots where radio signals are lost or where we have very poor connectivity with the control room. In almost 50 per cent of fire-related incidents firemen complain about call drops in radio signals. Beyond the 14th floor, the signal starts weakening.”

Fires in a highrise building or in an area surrounded by highrises often involve these ‘dark spots’ for radio signals, something that all firemen in Mumbai are worried about.

As the city’s architecture and skyline change, other problems have cropped up. “There are horizontal walls in some buildings, made up of material like concrete or heavy steel, and then there are buildings with glass facades. These also cause problems with radio signals,” said a fireman.

In dense pockets with a large number of highrises, for example in Worli or Lower Parel, communication is lost with even the nearest fire station, though the communication is supposed to be accessible to all fire stations in the city.

At the time of a fire, fire fighters are expected to reach their control post at all fire stations. The bare minimum requirement is that men at the nearest fire stations should be ready. “But now, when there is a fire in a highrise or in an area surrounded by highrises, communication is relayed through a control van stationed at the spot. From there it is relayed to the main control room in Byculla. This definitely affects response time,” said another official.

While an audio communication standard of Delivered Audio Quality (DAQ) of 5.5 is considered necessary for absolutely clear voices, a standard permissible level is 4.3. Firemen say it’s often poorer during operations, causing officials to consider installing bi-directional amplifiers systems in highrises to boost wireless signals.

The dark spots for communication include Geeta Nagar and nearby areas in Colaba and Cuffe Parade, Malabar Hill, parts of Andheri west including Versova, Four Bungalows, parts of BKC and Ghatkopar, now known as ‘grey areas’ due to weak signals.

Officials from the fire brigade said their wireless department was started in 1960, and the last upgradation of the system was in 1995. The department is thus working with a system that’s at least 23 years old with only new walkie-talkie and radio sets added in 2008. The walkie-talkies get dysfunctional if they come in contact with water, heat or dust. The battery life is also poor, some men have complained. A proposal for Digital Mobile Radio systems to upgrade the fire brigade’s communication is under consideration.

The other, more commonly known problem is that of glass facades, where smoke accumulates owing to poor ventilation, posing a different set of hazards for fire-fighting operations.

Ongoing infrastructure projects and the traffic on account of these is another challenge, fire brigade officials say. For example, in the recent fire at the ESIC hospital in Marol, the fire brigade faced traffic pile-ups en route. Fire fighting vehicles were pressed in from across the city, and a fire engine from Byculla Fire Brigade took about 1 hour and 45 minutes to cover the 21-km stretch to reach Marol, said an official.

Stretched to their limits

-While Mumbai’s population is over 1.25 crore and the city is spread across 438 sq km, the Mumbai Fire Brigade has a strength of 3,800 staff with 34 fire stations. Available fire fighters number 2,800.

-In 2011, the BMC conducted risk assessment studies highlighting how vulnerable the city is to fire mishaps. The 97-page report titled ‘Urban Fire Hazard & Risk Assessment and Mitigation for Mumbai’ suggested construction of 25 additional fire stations. The report also emphasised that better implementation of the Maharashtra Fire Prevention and Life Safety Measures Act, 2006 is needed. But there is no progress on new stations.

-Officials admit the fire brigade is way behind standards suggested by the Ministry of Home Affairs under the Standing Fire Advisory Council. The guidelines say there should be a fire station for every 50,000 people, or one fire station every four km. By this logic, Mumbai needs at least 100 fire stations, but has only 34 fire stations and six command centres.

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