From bird-rescue calls to minor and major fire incidents to flood-rescues and building collapses, the Mumbai Fire Brigade, touted as India’s best, is the first responder to more than 18,000 calls in a year. At the other end, tending to a city 603 sq km in size and with more than 1.2 crore people, are only 1,686 firemen, with 58 positions vacant.
The junior-most officers work 8 hours a day, the seniors 48 hours at a stretch, in what is a 24X7 operation. No phone call made to the fire brigade’s control room is silent for more than 5 seconds at a stretch. The number of hands is low and the stress levels are high. “The efficiency has gone down because the scope of work has increased and the manpower has fallen,” says former chief fire officer Pratap Khargopikar. This is coupled with red-tapism, hampering revamp. For instance, after the deluge of 2005 in Mumbai, the Fire Brigade was to set up six regional command centers to decentralise firefighting operations. A decade later, only one of the six centers is operational, in Wadala.
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For once, shortage of equipment is not an issue. The Mumbai Fire Brigade boasts the latest equipment in the market, which come to the city before being supplied to other units in the state. “Be it snorkels, aerial ladders or even the latest cutting equipment, the Mumbai Fire Brigade gets everything first,” Khargopikar says.
After the 26/11 terror attack, the brigade also acquired remote-controlled aerial ladders that can be operated from a distance of 30-40 meters, he adds.
Following the July 2014 blaze at Lotus Business Park in Andheri West, which claimed the life of one fireman, a 90-meter snorkel has been ordered from Finland which can reach 22 floors. The 62-meter snorkel they have currently can reach 15 floors.
The control room, referred to as the fire brigade’s “brain”, is located in a cavernous underground room at the Byculla fire station. Two long tables arranged in a large L are lined with telephones and seat 15 people at a time. Currently, the control room is able to answer 16 calls made at a time made to its 101 toll free number. “The first time I was on duty at the control room, I could not sleep for two days,” an officer previously posted at the control room says. “I could hear telephones ring inside my head.”
Says an in-charge of the control room, “I call my team of 47 people the golden team. These are people aware of every nook and corner of the city. If a fireman gets a call from Rani Sati Marg in Malad East, he knows that the nearest fire station is Dindoshi and not Malad West. We save so much time because of that.”
The brigade, however, has to still tackle narrow lanes, peak-hour traffic and haphazard, unauthorised parking on roads while rushing to rescue operations. During the Kalbadevi fire, scores of handcarts blocked access to Gokul Nivas. Any major fire incident may invite more than 200 calls just as alerts. “We have to explain patiently to every caller that the fire engines are on their way, but people become so impatient that they start swearing at us. How do people expect fire engines to reach the spot during peak hours? We also require time to pass through narrow lanes,” the control room in-charge says.
Since the Kalbadevi fire, Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation has served notices on 13 commercial businesses in the area running from essentially residential quarters. But widening of roads is another matter. BMC officials say that can only be done if the old structures are brought under a redevelopment scheme. However, petitions in this regard, including by the assistant commissioner of C-Ward (that covers Kalbadevi) are still being debated upon.
Though a proposal was mooted in 2012, BMC is yet to constitute a cell to conduct fire audits of buildings to assess their firefighting equipment. The fire brigade does not have the power to take legal action against buildings in case of non-compliance either. For example, while buildings are supposed to submit fire safety certificates twice a year – in January and July – only 10 per cent have done so.
Ex-chief fire officer Khargopikar says the brigade must split the work of firefighting and administration. “There must be a separate cell only to inspect high-rises and other hazardous structures. In several countries, these two departments counter-act each other. There can be legal action in case of non-compliance. Unless we introduce such strict measures, we cannot expect results.”
Says an angry P S Rahangdale, the acting chief fire officer, “It is public apathy. If people want to continue to live in structures which are a tinder-box, we cannot help it. We are trying to raise awareness amongst citizens at every level.” The average fireman or woman has many stories of near-escapes and hair-raising rescues of both man and animal. Fire brigade employees are insured for between Rs 2 and Rs 3 lakh a year to receive treatment in both public and private hospitals, but senior officers concede the policy remains only on paper.
The mandate for the force is clear: prioritise lives over property and if there is no risk to human lives, then prioritise controlling the fire and do not let it spread. Above all, emphasises an official, “No call is a minor call.” He gives the example of fireman Umesh Parvate. In December 2013, the 31-year-old, stationed at the Indira Dock Fire Station in South Mumbai, had rushed in response to a call that a crow had got injured after getting entangled in a razor-sharp kite thread in Masjid Bunder and was not able to move on its own off the godown.
Parvate climbed 20 feet up to the roof to free the cow, slipped and fell to his death. Officials estimate an average of 50 calls everyday to just rescue animals. The fire brigade is saddled with this task simply because there is no emergency medical service. The sheer number of such calls though has led the force to reach out to citizens for help. “Sometimes we ask people calling to report injured or trapped animals if they could rescue the animals on their own because it is not always possible to send a fire engine. Thankfully, there are a few good samaritans around,” a fireman at the control room says.