The recent fires in Vijayawada and Ahmedabad at hospitals for Covid-19 patients have pointed to the lack of fire safety measures. What are the rules, how are they flouted, and where does the buck stop?
What are the codes for fire safety?
The National Building Code of India published by the Bureau of Indian Standards (BIS) is the recommended document for all buildings across the country. The chapter on ‘Fire and Life Safety’ is instrumental in the way the exits and staircases are laid out and electrical circuits and water tanks are mapped.
It does not mean, however, that the building is fire-proof, only that it can be fire retardant. Every building should get a fire safety audit done every year, where a fire officer comes to check on all the parameters and codes.
What do the rules say?
An architect with her fire consultant provides the plans to the municipal body of the area for building approval. It’s also given to the Chief Fire Officer with complete building plans that are in sync with the Master Plan or Zonal Plan of the area.
These plans will have fire strategies – from the number of exits and their type, occupants’ load, fire escape routes, staircases, width of passageways and corridors, water tanks and fire towers.
Any commercial or institutional building taller than 15 metres is considered a highrise, and norms change with area size and use.
The specifications are different for buildings, from hospitals and commercial spaces to cinemas and schools. For instance, in a commercial building, the occupancy load will be different from that of a school.
Likewise, it’s usually one person per 15 sq m in a commercial building, so for a 15,000 sq m floor plate, there can be only about 100 people on the floor.
In any building, there has to be a minimum of two staircases. If it’s an 18,000 sq m block for instance, in an institutional building, there has to be a fire door in the middle, besides the mandatory two staircases at two ends.
In this space, if there are air-conditioning ducts passing through, these will have to have fire dampeners to block the smoke in case of a fire. In case of nursing homes and hospitals exceeding 300 sq m, at each floor, one of the exit facilities should be a ramp of not less than 2.4 m in width.
Most importantly, the travel distance to the fire exit has to be kept in mind. The distance that the remotest person on the floor can reach a staircase is roughly 24 m.
If fire exits are not naturally ventilated, they should have fire doors that can retard the fire for the given time of two to four hours.
Currently, there are no defined standards for furnishing or interior materials. The 2017 Grenfell Tower fire in West London was made worse by the insulation within the wall panels.
The codes also have a say on the electrical distribution cables and wiring, which should have separate ducts sealed with non-combustible material, and should be separate from telephone wires or gas and water mains.
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What are the hurdles in the way?
Anything from cartons to mattresses, really. Often corridors are blocked, and become storage areas. Since fire staircases are used the least, for security reasons they are locked, and people get trapped inside.
Besides, the enforcement of the building codes is not always adhered to, which happens often when floors are added illegally or inspections are circumvented.
Some of the codes are also tough to follow, especially if in an office, sprinkler systems need to be checked once a year, there’s no way they can save their computers or hardware, without disruption of work.
Who should take the blame?
While the onus for maintenance and upkeep of the building rests with the management, the contractors who supply the fire equipment – sprinklers, hose pipes, fire extinguishers – should also be held accountable for maintenance.
Municipal bodies that give the final clearance should be held accountable for giving the NOC for any building. The architect/builder must also be questioned on the safety and validity of the building plan.
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