Burnt to a cinder

Nitin Dubey had never been so scared in his life. As he watched the deadly smoke engulf the top two floors of Carlton Tower in Bangalore, he could see people leaning out of windows trying to escape the blinding smoke and hear their desperate screams for help. He was acutely aware that he could very well become one of the victims, being trapped with them, but somehow he had been spared their fate. One of his colleagues had not been so lucky.

File photo. Pic: Kiran Jonnalagadda

By the time the fire was extinguished nine people were dead, some asphyxiated and some having jumped to their deaths, while another 60 suffered severe injuries. He was devastated and resolved to do something about the needless tragedy that had befallen so many.

The Carlton fire was a wake up call for many of Bangalore’s professionals such as Dubey. The city of almost 8 million is home to a huge white-collar workforce, employed in its IT and software services industry and hundreds of other businesses. As the city grows vertically in glass and concrete towers, the question of how safe these buildings are is becoming an increasingly serious concern. Equally, how prepared are building managements and the people working in them to deal with emergencies, the most important being fire hazards?

Inadequate strength

“If several calls to combat fire come at the same time we are not really capable of reaching all the places simultaneously as people’s demand owing to inadequate strength,” admits B G Changappa, director of the State’s Fire and Emergency Services (FES). The Karnataka FES department has just 513-firefighters on its rolls although it has a sanctioned strength of 713, a shortfall of some 30%.

“There is definitely a huge gap in the accountability mechanism. Even the training is more like a token. The training manuals were written ages ago, it does not suit the contemporary context,” says Cheryl Rebello, coordinator of Janaagraha, the civil rights NGO in the city.

The department is building nine new fire stations adding to the existing 12 fire stations in the city at an investment of more than Rs 3 crore for each fire station. This will add  27 fire trucks to the city’s fleet of 45. But the city requires as many as 140 fire stations if it is to conform to the Central Fire Advisory Council’s recommendations, which stipulates a ration of one fire station for every 50,000 residents. Specialised fire vehicles with a capacity to carry 16,000 litres of water are becoming standard issue. “These vehicles will supplement the additional requirement of water in time of massive crisis,” assures Changappa.

“When it comes to abiding by the fire safety norms for the developers across the city, it’s more of giving value to the lives of people out there than getting the clearance done through its backdoor,” vows Changappa. “I have already promised that once the report of Carlton fire accident comes, we will ensure some periodic supervision and inspection for the occupancy of the buildings considering the possible reasons behind the crisis,” assures V S Acharya, Home Minister of Karnataka. 

BDA’s Master Plan

Under the BDA’s master plan for the city, the height limit for high-rises has been increased to 24 metres. But the fire department has just two ladders capable of reaching such heights, one at 37 metres and another at 30 metres. However, the fire department is on a process of buying one 52 metre ladder for Rs 5 crore in the next couple of months. “Along with a set of new initiatives, we are thinking of making mandatory a ladder outside the high-rises reaching 24 metres and above in the city,” says P Rajeev, Deputy Director of town planning at BBMP.

The town planning department specifies other measures to enable fire safety. Whereas spacious entry and exit points are compulsory for high-rises, public buildings like hospitals and schools must have staircases of the required width to evacuate large numbers.

“Half of the time the fire exit indication on the walls of different floors of a building are not properly placed and exits remains blocked,” says Dubey. That is precisely what compounded the problem in the Carlton Tower fire accident.

Above all, to enforce these regulations we require frequent inspections by fire department says P Rajeev. “It is the job of the occupants residing in the high-rises to maintain fire-fighting equipment. They should have proper annual maintenance contracts,” says Moeiz Ahmed, Director of Fire Training at Usha Fire Safety Group. Unless the equipment is maintained, there is no point having fire-fighting equipments installed, he says. At least two fire evacuation drills in a year is necessary to keep the service active, suggests Ahmed.

But there is no substitute for public awareness in making buildings fire safe and in the event of an emergency. “Crowds should never rush and VIPs should stay away from the place where the fire accident happens,” says Acharya.

“The firefighters cannot work properly if onlookers throng the site and rush to help,” observes Changappa. Dubey feels crowd management is critical to control the situation when fire accidents like the Carlton mishap occur.

Left to themselves, of course people will do everything to help. But in emergencies such voluntary help can often prove dangerous. Surdhi Joshi and Sunil Iyer, trapped on the higher floors of Carlton Tower, jumped down onto bed sheets held by members of the crowd below but crashed to the ground when the sheets gave way.

Beyond Carlton

Forums such as ‘Beyond Carlton’, set up by kin of the victims to spread awareness, ask who allowed untrained people to attempt rescue in time of crisis? Although people can and often supplement trained firefighters, they have to do so under the latter’s supervision and control.

The principal obstacle to fire safety seems to be the awareness. Beyond Carlton has launched campaigns to reach as many people as they can. They use social networking sites and radio stations to spread their message widely.

“Specific aspects like fire safety are often neglected in the fast growing cities and it’s no exception for Bangalore. Frankly speaking the department of fire and emergency services has a long way to go increasing its capacity,” reiterates Cheryl. It appears to be a multi-pronged problem. Builders do not bother to follow safety principles when constructing tall buildings. Instead of designing and building to minimise the risk of fire at the time of construction, they point the finger at fire department.

According to the National Building Code (NBC), 40% of the occupants of the high rises should be trained in fire fighting. “In my opinion, this fire-safety subject should be made compulsory for the architects and even in lessons in school level. On the other hand, the occupants should bring their concerns and problems to the concerned authority’s notice as well,” suggests Ahmed. “Spread the message to the companies, the business buildings, the large residential complexes, and conduct mock drills.”

As the recent fire at Gold Coin Towers on Bangalore’s Residency Road underscores, if we refuse to learn from previous disasters, we are condemned to suffer then again.   ⊕

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