The massive fire which happened in a Government office building that houses the seat of power in the State of Maharashtra set off alarm bells and brought into focus many issues that were overlooked or sidestepped by builders and occupants. Lack or non-functional sprinklers, blocked exit routes, expired fire fighting equipment, lack of emergency training and basic apathy feature as the forerunners for such disasters. This chart by Frost & Sullivan on the Verticals driving the growth of the market puts into perspective where Fire Safety stands in the Indian industry.
With total investments on Fire safety being as low as 1-2%, fires like the one in Mantralaya (June 2012) and AMRI hospital, Kolkata (December 2011) come as no surprise. On most occasions, builders argue that they had installed fire safety equipment at site. However the onus of ensuring that the equipment is up-to-date and in working condition falls on no one in particular.
According to the National Building code, buildings above 15meters in height need to have their safety equipment measured and certified on a yearly basis. The Indian Building Codes document makes it mandatory for builders to refer the building plans to the Chief Fire Officer for obtaining clearance. The plans have to be clearly marked to indicate the complete fire protection arrangements and the means of access/escape for the proposed building. This document needs to be duly signed/certified by a licensed Fire Consultant/Architect. The Chief Fire Officer needs to examine these plans to ensure that they are in accordance with the provisions of fire safety and means of escape as per the bye-laws. The process is repeated after completion of fire fighting installations as approved, duly tested and certified by the licensed Fire Consultant / Architect. The document makes provision for access ways, exits, stairways, lifts, lift shafts etc.
M V Deshmukh, Director, Maharashtra Fire Services stated that in most case of fire accidents, short circuit is deemed the culprit, but many factors besides faulty wiring are to be held responsible. Faulty wiring, outdated fire fighting equipment, blocked/jammed exits, cluttered passages, lack of directions to show the exits or doorways, cluttered rooms and abundance of ignitable material and at times human negligence are all responsible for small sparks turning into devastating fires.
He emphasised that some core factors should be considered while planning, designing and constructing buildings – commercial or residential. Calculating available safe egress time based on different fire situations should be a must while at the design stage itself. This is important considering that new buildings are now going vertical and have fancy or glass facades (which invariable are high risk during fires).
Sunil Nesarikar, Deputy, Chief Fire Officer, Mumbai Fire Brigade felt that details of fire egress, refuge floors, escape routes, nearest fire fighting equipment should be made available on all floors to ensure that when a fire does break out, the occupants can at least start the process of fighting the fire before help from the fire brigade arrives. Similarly periodic fire drills and short training courses should be made mandatory for all housing or commercial complexes.
D K Shami, Deputy Fire Advisor, Ministry of Home Affairs, Government of India, stated that most often builders ask for exemptions while altering the approved design of a building. Structures that should ideally have basement and four floors would invariably have modified basement parking, four floors plus one or two floors. Such buildings that violate the original signed off plan are like time bombs ticking towards a disastrous fire situation. “Ironically most of the fire safety measures implemented on paper in a building design or blueprint are meant only to meet legal compliance and obtaining local statutory clearances”, rued Shami.
Both Nesarikar and Shami recommend that for structures having two or more towers, there should be refuge floors on a regular basis which also act as connectors between the towers. Sprinklers and water fittings for fire fighting should be fitted on each floor with proper connections near the complex entrance for fire fighting trucks. Occupants should undergo fire drills regularly and directions/maps should be provided marking out escape routes and exit points and if need be assembly areas in high rise.
With new chapters on car parking, malls and multiplexes, atrium protection and passive protection and compartmentalisation included in The National Building Code of India (NBC), builders and developers will face new challenges. However abiding by the codes and adherence to the safety standards is a challenge that each and every individual faces.
To sum up, Sasidhar Chidanamarri, Industry Manager, Frost & Sullivan feels that the growth potential for the fire and safety industry is massive in India; however lack of updated information and understanding hinder growth. He believes that the key issues stifling the further evolution of the industry are:
- Lack of implementation of existing regulations
- Volatile economic conditions
- End users tendency to meet the basic minimum requirements and perception that there have no ROI (Return on Investment)
- Heavy competition due to a fragmented market resulting in lower margins
- Price sensitivity and tighter budgets slow down the adoption of new technologies
- And limited awareness about new technologies and the need for safety
Any change in the fire safety situation in the country can only occur when mind sets change and Smart city concepts where Deployment of Technologies and solutions to make city a better place to live in are implemented.