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Reduced to ashes

Fire outbreaks in India's most-developed metropolises have claimed several lives and destroyed property worth millions – all due to inadequate urban planning

"I rushed to the main gate but others were unable to escape. In a few minutes, the fire became uncontrollable and the whole place was up in flames," revealed a victim of a factory fire in Delhi, where four persons had died in 2018.

This is only one among the many instances where fire mishaps have swiftly turned fatal, engulfing not only structures but also the lives of people. Whether it is a factory, pub or house, fire outbreaks are unprecedented, leaving behind only ashes and dark memories.

Party with caution

On December 2017, a deadly fire broke out at Kamala Mills compound in Mumbai's Lower Parel area, claiming the lives of 14 innocent people. The fire was reported from a rooftop pub. "Most pubs have a single entry and exit route. When a fire breaks out, it becomes difficult for people to escape," said a fire official. The absence of adequate entry and exit points in dingy pubs has amplified the risks associated with fire outbreaks – more casualties unfold from people being trapped in small, congested spaces.

The official further enumerated dim lighting and artificial smoke machines as other reasons leading to high casualties during fire breakouts in clubs and pubs. When asked about precautions that party-goers must take while visiting pubs, restaurants or hotels for celebration, chief fire officer, Delhi Fire Services (DFS), Atul Garg, stated that people should check for exit routes in places where they are celebrating so that they can map their escape if any untoward incident takes place. "If there is no second exit route, party-goers should avoid the place," he emphasised.

Across the world, mass casualties are most often reported from pubs. According to a media report, in 2003, at least 96 bodies were recovered from a nightclub fire that had apparently been sparked by rock band Great White's pyrotechnics display. More than 180 people were also injured as frantic mobs rushed to escape the blaze. It was the deadliest US nightclub fire since 1977, when 164 people had been killed at the Beverly Hills Supper Club in Southgate, Kentucky.

India in flames

Nine people were killed and more than 147 patients and visitors suffered injuries during a fire at a government-run hospital, in Mumbai, in December 2018. As many as 108 people, including patients, were trapped inside when a fire broke out at ESIC Kamgar Hospital, at Marol, in suburban Andheri. In December, last year, a major fire also broke out at a high-rise residential building in Mumbai's Chembur, killing at least five people.

The fire broke out on the tenth floor of the 16-storied Sargam Society building in Tilak Nagar area. 17 people were killed and two were injured in a massive blaze at a firecracker storage unit in outer Delhi's Bawana industrial area, in January 2018. In November 2017, more than 10 persons were killed after a five-storey plastic factory building went up in flames and collapsed in Ludhiana. More than six people died and several others were injured in a gas cylinder blast during a wedding function in Beawar town, in Jaipur, in February 2018.

NDRF to the rescue

National Disaster Response Force (NDRF) teams were sent seven times to respond to fire emergencies in which buildings had collapsed due to fire outbreaks. "We rescued two injured victims and also retrieved 31 bodies," said NDRF.

According to an NDRF official, a fire breakout is not on their mandate, teams respond to those fire incidents where buildings collapse after an outbreak. "The situation is handled by teams as per the collapsed structure scenario. The whole area is cordoned to restrict unwanted movement and allow hassle-free rescue operations," said Krishan Kumar, Assistant Commandant & PRO, NDRF.

Explaining the rescue, he said, "Possible approaches to rescue the trapped are executed with the assistance of technical and manual processes, depending upon the type of collapse," said Kumar. The services of the latest equipment, as well as specialised responders, are utilised. "Canines are an integral part of rescue operations. Even today, no technology can match the sniffing capability of canines," Kumar added.

The process is followed by the collection of information that includes the number of people trapped, building type and incident time (day/night – if the incident takes place at night, then most people are expected to be in their bedrooms).

"Smoke emanating from the fire creates an obstacle in all phases," NDRF claimed, adding that the chance of loose material collapsing is always there. The rescue force always ensures all-around effort to reach the victim at the earliest during the golden hour.

Fire in JJ clusters

The material used for the construction of JJ clusters is highly combustible and produces toxic gasses when burnt. Though spread across a small area, jhuggis present a high concentration in limited space. They are built side-by-side and back-to-back in a row, with economic use of space. The lanes servicing these rows are hardly a metre in width. These areas are also used for the storage of huge quantities of waste rags, chemicals, plastic, PVC, etc.

According to the fire department, there is a lack of communication facilities in the nearly 1,100 JJ clusters and this has led to late information arriving on the outbreak of fire. By the time the affected JJ clusters can inform the fire brigade, hundreds of jhuggis are already burnt down because the material and unsystematic layout lead to the entire area being gutted in a fire in a very short span of time. Wind speed also plays havoc in such situations. Often, it has been observed that as soon as fire units reach the spot, they find a hostile crowd, which begins pelting stones, manhandling and damaging fire appliances. Recently, a fire in clusters left several people homeless in Kirti Nagar.

Illegal use of buildings

Inappropriate and illegal use of building infrastructure is the breeding ground for devastating fire outbreaks, claim officials of Delhi Fire Services (DFS), adding that improper staircases in factories and residencies cause casualties during a blaze.

According to officials, a probe conducted in factory fire cases had revealed that most buildings of fire accidents were built in accordance to the plans of a house but were instead used for running dingy, ill-ventilated factories. In some cases, the main door was also found locked, leaving no space for escape.

Further, in factories, the use of multiple machines increases the load on wires, which then leads to fire incidents. Open electricity meters fitted near staircases are also very dangerous. "If the house has one escape route through the staircase and the metre catches fire, there is no chance left for escape," elaborated the official.

In one case, where six persons died after a blast in a factory in Motinagar, South Delhi Municipal Corporation (SDMC) claimed that commercial activity was being conducted "illegally" in a two-storey building. In another case, reported in November, four persons were killed in Karol Bagh. Delhi Police found that the factory where the incident took place was running illegally. According to officials, in most factory fire cases, commercial warehouses were being operated in residential areas without NOCs from the fire department, a completely illegal practice.

Wiring

DFS chief Garg emphasised that the wiring of a house needs to be replaced when electrical appliances increase. "When electrical goods like ACs, fans, refrigerators increase in a residence, outdated wiring cannot handle the growing number of electrical instruments and overload can cause a fire," said Garg.

Fire NOC

Since 2017, as many as 4,500 buildings in the National Capital have received no objection certificates from Delhi Fire Services. Before granting NOC, a thorough checking is conducted to know whether a structure is adhering to appropriate fire safety norms, according to the fire department.

DFS data accessed by Millennium Post claimed that in 2017, around 1,883 buildings were given fire NOCs whereas, in 2018, 2,618 different types of structures were given the certificate.

"Industrial and storage buildings spread across 250 sq m., educational and institutional buildings with a height of more than 9 m or with ground plus two upper stories including a mezzanine floor, need fire NOCs. Hotels and guesthouses having a height of more than 12 m and residential buildings with a height of more than 15 m with ground plus four upper stories including mezzanine floor require fire NOCs," claimed a fire officer.

Data

In 2017-18, fire services received 29,423 calls reporting different types of incidents. As many as 28 calls were of medium and serious fire. During different incidents, 318 died and 1,767 were injured.

Abhay Singh

Abhay Singh

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