Safety training and technological fixes can cut the massive death toll from fires each year
Nearly all major Indian cities have a brush with destructive but often preventable accidental fires each year, leaving in their wake lost lives and destroyed property. The blaze in the Eastern Railway headquarters in Kolkata on the evening of March 8, which killed at least nine people, is particularly egregious because it took place in a modern multi-storeyed special building. What the preliminary account of the fire and its aftermath suggests is a textbook case of poor attention to fire safety basics and, possibly, the absence of robust fire mitigation technologies. Whatever the sequence of events, the unfortunate incident in the central part of a vibrant city has taken the lives of a group of first responders, including four firefighters, a police officer and some railway staff. Apparently anxious to intervene, a group of personnel lost sight of their own safety and tried to speed up to the top floor of the building in a lift, perishing in the fire and smoke. The computerised booking system of the railway was paralysed. It has been a difficult start to the new year for Kolkata, with an inferno in the Baghbazar area destroying a vast slum, triggering violent protests. A return to normality will obviously take a lot of remedial work, although prioritising fire safety will have to wait for the frenetic election campaign there to end.
Every instance of fire brings to the fore the problem of adopting an incremental approach to safety. The building blocks of safety rely as much on modern technologies, as on preparedness, although Indian cities give short shrift to both. Official certifications that are not worth the paper they are printed on substitute for actual enforcement. Using the Kolkata railway building as a test case, the Centre should report on whether it met the fire safety norms prescribed in the National Building Codes. For instance, smoke alarms and sprinkler systems are an inexpensive early warning and intervention measure, but are not universally adopted. The recent tragedy also presents an occasion to review the progress of the Model Bill of 2019 to Provide for the Maintenance of Fire and Emergency Services of a State, which aimed at modernisation. Considering that the death toll from accidental fires, as per NCRB data for 2019, stands at a staggering 10,915, there is every reason to make a fire safety upgrade for public buildings a mission mode plan. Bringing such structures under the purview of public liability insurance, paid for by the respective departments, will provide enough incentive for their occupants to incorporate safety in all planning, and involve third party audits. Equally, drills for offices and multi-storeyed residential buildings will eliminate uncertainty and confusion among people on what must be done when disaster actually strikes. Safety favours only those who are prepared.