I was deeply moved by the Carlton fire tragedy and I strongly feel that such deaths could have been avoided. The following simple innovative suggestions are for serious consideration and implementation so that lives of people can be saved:
- Make fireproof ropes available near windows: In all hi-rise buildings, glass boxes containing 100 to 300 feet of sturdy, fireproof rope (thickness of two to three inches), duly knotted at every two meters of length, must be kept ready. One end of the rope must be secured to a steel hook embedded to the masonry structure. In case of fire or emergency, people will be able to break the glass, remove the coiled rope, throw it out of the open window, climb down and escape asphyxiation due to thick smoke inside the building and fear or certain death by jumping through the open window. Inhaling carbon monoxide prevents the blood from carrying oxygen to cells, tissues, and organs and can threfore numb the faculties of the mind and create more panic in the brain due to depleted oxygen filled blood in the brain. By climbing down with the help of the secured rope, they can breathe fresh air and plan to save themselves with a clear mind activated by proper oxygen filled blood circulation. Ropes without knots may shear the skin while sliding down and they may also lose balance and fall. The knots can help create the feeling of climbing down on a ladder.
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Similar facility of ropes filled boxes must be made available near the ‘Staircase Well’ so that some people can climb down and escape faster without getting trampled in the melee on the staircase. Similar arrangements must be available on the terrace of all buildings, but with the condition that the length of the rope must reach the ground level.
- Mini-Oxygen cylinders with masks may be supplied to all employees/inmates with instructions on how to use them.
- Cotton Masks/towels may be kept handy so that in case of emergency, people can wet them, cover their face, and therefore filter the smoke to avoid inhaling Carbon Monoxide/Carbon Dioxide/toxic fumes that may emanate from burning of computers/plastic, etc.
- Availability of water: Water hydrants on streets are typically found to be dormant. All buildings must provide one water hydrant at ground level and one extra water tank on the roof top that must be reserved for use during emergencies, to douse the fire from top or be available for people who reach the top floor. Periodical cleaning and maintenance of the same must be mandatory.
- People wearing nylon/polythene dress material must be extra careful because such materials catch fire fast, melt fast and stick to the body causing severe burns to the skin.
- No inflammable material must be stacked on the terrace (Carlton Towers had a dozen diesel barrels on its terrace)/or on any of the floors; most government buildings use their unused top floors for dumping material such as old records, broken furniture, computers, etc.
- Fire escape exit points: All buildings must be mandated to provide emergency fire exits in all floors (no compromises with the quality of staircase outside such emergency exits – some buildings have cost effective staircases made out of thin pipes and scrap material for steps only to follow the rules, or if available, they are very narrow)
- Red doors: All such emergency exit points must be painted red and must have glass doors that can be broken, so access to staircase can be made available in case the door is locked.
- Lifts with escape hatches: Lifts will be the first casualty in case of power failure and create all round panic to inmates; hence, all lifts must have an exit hatch at the roof level so that people can manage to climb up and try to reach safe points; here again, mini oxygen cylinders with masks may be kept in glass boxes inside the lifts.
- Back-up power generation system must be available within the premises and preferably outside the building; at present such generators are housed in the cellar floors in most buildings.
- Fire extinguishing foam/gas cylinders with clear instructions for use, must be placed in all floors in sufficient numbers, with periodical servicing/replacements.
- Smoke sensors and water jets/sprinklers with siren systems must be in place in all corridors, halls and rooms.
- Gas cylinders of canteens must be placed outside the bulding with proper emergency/security measures.
- Helipads and helicopter pick up facility: All hi-rise buildings to have facility for either Helipads or facility for evacuating people through use of Helicopters from roof top.
- Area digital/satellite maps: Fire stations must use satellite maps to enable the fire engine to take alternate routes that may have less traffic and reach the fire mishap spot without getting caught in traffic jams. Such maps will also help the fire station to alert the traffic police to cordon off the area and divert the movement of vehicles to other routes.
- Officially approved building plans to be made available to area fire stations and area police stations; It must be made mandatory for all hi-rise buildings – commercial and residential – to keep three copies (one original with two soft copies) in area fire stations and police stations for use during emergency situations. Such information will help in proper planning and also to prosecute the violators of prescribed norms under the National Building Code. Affected people may also be supplied with certified copies to claim insurance etc.
- Keep people at distance: People who just want to watch must keep a safe distance and their presence should not hinder movement of emergency services.
- ‘No objection certificates (NOCs)’ for occupation of buildings are being issued in a very casual manner even though buildings have violated rules, regulations and codes prescribed in National Building Codes.
- Prevention is better than cure. During construction period itself, all officials empowered to supervise encroachments, violations from approved plans, fire fighting arrangement etc., should be directed to ensure compliance of rules and regulations without compromise. If mishaps occur, they must be held responsible and action must be taken against such officials.
- Safety Rope Nets: All fire stations must be equipped with ready made safety rope nets of varying sizes with hooks that could be attached to nearest electric poles, advertisement poles or even to fire engines so that more lives can be saved. Look at what happens in a circus – workers erect strong safety nets for their trapeze artists within a matter of minutes. Tragic deaths that occurred at Carlton Towers could have been avoided – people held bed sheets and tempted the victims to jump from heights; this ended badly as the sheets could not take the load or were not held tight by the well-meaning people. Tightly fitted rope nets will definitely help save lives.
- Yoga for survival: Yogic exercise like Pranayama will be of great help when we are surrounded by smoke and toxic fumes alround. Our capacity to hold our breath for a few minutes will be the golden minutes to find escape routes with a clear mind, run in the right direction and keep ourselves alive; how many minutes we can hold our breath depends upon the practice we put in everyday – this exercise can be done even while we are working. Our lungs have a certain capacity of intake of fresh air. Unfortunately, we are not taking in deep breaths due to various constraints/stress in our daily lives and we are stocking a lot of stale air with half breathing practice.
- Parachutes/Para Sails: On the terrace of all high rise buildings Parachutes / Para-sails in sufficient numbers may be kept ready for those who escape to the terrace. Necessary knowledge dissemination on how to use tie them, how to pull the string to release the chute and after how many counts the string has to be pulled may be given to the inmates. Large stickers on how to use the equipment must be exhibited in all floors.
- Bows, Arrows & Ropes: If there are clusters of high rise buildings in an area, bows and arrows may be made available on the terrace, with rolls of strong fireproof ropes attached to the arrows. In case of emergency, it will be possible to shoot arrows to the roof tops of other buildings where the other end of the rope can be secured by those people on their rooftops and people can escape by crossing over to the other buildings. If the nearby buildings are within short distances, another option would be to throw a strong metallic multi-hook with rope tied to one end, so that it gets hooked to some structure on the other building to enable people to cross over and escape the fire and maybe even collapse of the affected building.
- Allround ledges below windows: Future buildings need to be directed to provide ledges of two feet wide just below the windows level, all around the building with small steel hooks at a height of 4/5 feet above such ledges, embedded into the superstructure at regular distances, so that people can climb out of the window, move over the ledges and stand securely by holding on to the steel hooks to balance or to protect themselves from strong winds at such heights.
- Other techniques: For school children/young techies, fire fighting can be made into a learning exercise while having fun. In addition to regular exposure to formal fire fighting demonstrations by the Fire Department, first aid, etc., their PT periods/leisure time can be turned into survival exercises also. Remember Bruce Lee and other Karatekas – they have mastered the art of jumping from heights, landing on all fours (with the help of legs and hands), recover their poise and running within a matter of seconds. Rock climbing as a sport is becoming popular and that knowledge can help in safely climbing down/up, when caught up in a fire in a high rise building.
If any of these solutions are available at the time of fire mishap, it could maybe save the lives of people and tragedies can be averted. When hundreds of crores of rupees are being invested in constructing huge structures, the cost involved in providing the above fire emergency services should not be a concern at all.