How Safe are High Rises?
TOPIC: General Studies 3
- Disaster and disaster management
In News: A Good Samaritan in her early thirties died of asphyxiation after a fire broke out at a condominium in the National Capital region in the wee hours of Monday. The interior designer saved many lives in a high-rise tower at Tulip Orange. Thanks to her, almost everyone escaped to safety, but unfortunately she couldn’t.
The Issue –
Such tragedies are the result of “a crumbling metropolis” where planning is haphazard and safety norms brazenly flouted. A fire, accidental or otherwise, is likely to cause 12 times more deaths than injuries as per the NCRB data available in the country. The data shows 51 deaths are caused by fire every day. The data shows residential buildings are more likely to catch fire than factories manufacturing combustible items. Incidents at residential buildings account for 29% of the total number of fires caused.
Modern day buildings sport corrugated plastic roofs, partition walls, plastic doors, false ceiling panels, interior finish material, and have equipment like washing machines, refrigerators, air-conditioners, televisions, mobile electronic gadgets and computer hardware. These new amenities have, no doubt, made life easier. However, they also pose higher fire risk since many of them are made of material that have higher calorific values and thus more inflammable. For instance, paper work has given way to digital records in offices and homes. This has meant that less of cellulose and more of plastic, which has higher calorific value, is being and stored and used.
The National Building Code (NBC), 2016, guidelines lists every detail when it comes to construction, including fire safety. The code lists requirements for different users (residential and commercial buildings, for instance), like the number of exits, placement of extinguishers, a dedicated water supply, fire-retardant building materials, and so on. But implementation is often substandard. The NBC is just that: a guideline, not a mandatory rule of law.
- Though the fire engines reach, they too are of little help if there is not enough space for their movement, or no adequate space for them to use hoses to douse the fire. The unauthorised parking shed also restrict their movement. Also, the not enough space to use a hydraulic lift to rescue those caught on the upper floors.
- Over-loading: A new study by researchers at the Indian Institute of Technology, Gandhinagar, has warned that the fire load in modern day buildings in India is three times greater than what was even as late as 1990s.
- To cut corners, contractors do not use star-rated electrical wiring and instruments. Due to poor quality, the wires and instruments are not able to take the heavy load and it results in fire accidents
- A No-Objection Certificate (NOC) is required from the Chief Fire officer (CFO) before a new structure can be occupied. The NOC comes only after checking that access to refuge areas (designated spots where occupants must gather to facilitate rescue) is unhindered and that all the requirements of the Maharashtra Fire Prevention Act and the Life Safety Measures Act are adhered to. But the rules are flouted after people shift in, and routine checks are rare.
- When it comes to granting the NOCs, it is unfair to expect that the Chief Fire Officer, who is essentially a fire fighter, be able to grasp the complexities of engineering and civil works. Ideally this should fall under a specialised body.
The Way Forward
As Indian cities increasingly grow vertically, it’s important to remember that fires in high-rises are best fought from within. Given the space crunch in Mumbai, often the turntable ladders of fire vehicles cannot be adequately manoeuvred. In such cases, fire engines are just aids; the real fire fighters are the residents. There are some things all citizens must be watchful about.
- For instance, in some cases, where the conveyance deed is not effected, the terrace, which may be marked as a refuge area, is in the builder’s possession, illegally.
- Also, commercial users who are co-members in residential premises must be watched with utmost care to prevent them from usurping common areas.
- It’s essential to attend fire drills and insist on periodic safety checks of our buildings.
- Invest in fire curtains and smoke barriers that block the spread of flames and smog
- Merely having sprinklers isn’t enough: they should be checked periodically. Investing in fire hydrants is a must, as is being trained in using them.
- While having a fire refuge area is mandatory, it’s just as important to check that the doors to fire exits actually open, and that such areas are not encroached upon. An alert managing committee can go a long way in preventing hazards.
- Basic lessons on fire safety need to form part of academic curriculum of the students
Fire safety starts with YOU
- Ensure all exits are marked clearly.
- Ensure all refuge areas are accessible and unlocked.
- Ensure stairways are clear.
- Do not allow vehicles to park in areas demarcated for rescue vehicles or blocking access for rescue vehicles.
- Ensure window grills can be opened.
- Invest in fire-fighting equipment, and learn how to use it.
- Insist on fire drills.
- Take action against unauthorised sheds. If your building society does not act, report it to the Fire Department and municipal authorities.