At 2:00 am on Saturday morning, the fire brigade unit at Bhandara in Maharashtra received a call from the district general hospital after a fire broke out in the neonatal ICU. “It took the firemen only seven or eight minutes to reach the hospital because it is very close by,” said Vinod Jadhao, Chief Officer, Municipal Councillor’s office Bhandara. However, by the time the firemen climbed their ladder and entered the smoke-filled ICU rooms, ten infants had already lost their lives.
“Seven babies were rescued from the first ICU room. After clearing out that room, when we reached the second unit (the special newborn care unit) we realised that due to the smoke, and the fire all ten babies in there had passed away,” he added.
Jadhao recalled that in one end of the room was a heap of melted plastic equipment, medicines and wires. “There were no big blazing flames, but it looked like the kind of fire that’s caused by a short circuit. Although, it is for the experts to ascertain,” he added.
“The firemen took one-and-a-half hours to complete the rescue operation, and everyone from the medical staff to the police helped,” said Jadhao. “The entire floor had to be vacated. While the medical staff had already begun shifting the patients, we also joined in and helped,” he added.
Maharashtra Home Minister Anil Deshmukh visits the Bhandara General Hospital on Saturday. (Image: PTI)
By the time morning arrived, a tsunami of grief, outrage and condolences had poured in on social media. From Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Maharashtra Chief Minister Uddhav Thackeray to other political leaders, many lamented the ‘tragic’ and ‘heart-wrenching’ incident.
However, this isn’t the first time that India has seen such a tragic fire incident, that claimed many lives, at a healthcare institution, to which people generally go in order to save their lives.
The Big Picture
According to a research paper titled ‘A study on reported fire incidents in major hospitals of India’ by authors Shyam Siddharth Rao Patharla, Souri Reddy Pyreddy and Shilpa N Panthagani, a total of 33 major hospital fire incidents were reported in India between January 2010 to December 2019.
The paper notes, “The most common cause of fire was due to electrical short circuit 78% with air conditioners being the most common source. Functional firefighting systems were reported in 19 incidents. Fires originated at or near intensive care units (ICU’s) in 10 instances. 72.72% accidents occurred at night (8:01 pm to 7:59 am). Casualties were reported in 39% of the fire accidents.”
Rescue work after a fire broke out in the new born babies’ care unit of the Bhandara District General Hospital. (Image: PTI)
Last year, 8 COVID-19 patients were killed in a fire at Shrey Hospital in Gujarat. Among them was the wife of Advocate Amit Panchal’s colleague. Panchal later filed a PIL seeking action on the fire incident and implementation of fire safety measures in the state.
“My colleague’s wife was to be discharged the next day at 11:00 am. At night when the fire took place at Shrey hospital in the ICU, there were too many plastic and inflammable equipment, and the fire spread fast. Nobody even used the fire extinguishers, if at all there were fire extinguishers, to begin with,” he said.
“Unfortunately, the building of the hospital was originally a residential building which was later converted into a hospital, therefore, the ICU was on the first floor. Eight people passed away in that fire, including my colleague’s wife,” Panchal added. The hearing on his PIL is still on and the next date that he has been given is 29 January 2021.
Those who lose their loved ones in such hospital fire-related incidents, it is mostly a long-drawn wait for finding out who is accountable. They wait for official enquiries to end, and for the culprit(s) to be punished while knowing deep down that these losses were preventable, if only certain fire safety measures were implemented on time.
The Most Basic Fire Preventive Measures
Suraj Shambharkar, head counsellor, National Institute of Fire Safety and Engineering, Nagpur, pointed out that while there are several protocols and preventive measures which should be followed in hospitals, two very basic fire safety equipment go a long way in averting major breakouts.
“The most basic thing for fire safety is smoke detectors and sprinklers. If you have these two things, even if there is fire, it would automatically be put off. Also, smoke detectors rings an alarm cautioning everyone about the fire even before it spreads. If the temperature rises in a room, sprinklers get automatically turned on. These two equipment can take care of the initial break out to some extend, until the fire brigade reaches the spot. Also, if you think of it, they hardly cost much and can still go a long way in saving lives,” said Shambharkar.
“In smaller spaces fire spreads faster. So, extinguishers come in handy. But, it is not just enough to have it. All staff members should be given basic training in how to use them promptly, and properly.” he added.
Avinash Gawande, the superintendent of Government Medical College Nagpur pointed out, “Fire audits need to happen routinely in order to avert fire related incidents. We have an electric engineer, as well as section engineer here and we conduct monthly meetings, for neonatal ICU, preventive ICU, Adult ICU, as well as for the entire hospital… we check thoroughly.”
“If you put too many equipments on the same extension plug, that too can cause a fire. So, we have completely done away with that system. I feel that’s the main reason why short circuits happen. We also audit the wires of the machines to make sure that there are no cuts, or wear and tear. Yearly, we conduct fire drills,” he added.
Looking For Accountability?
The Maharashtra government was quick to order a probe in the Bhandara hospital fire. It has also announced an ex-gratia of Rs 5 lakh to the relatives of the deceased infants. Throughout the day, the doctors and medical staff of the Bhandara district general hospital have been in and out of meetings about the incident.
“It was a tragic incident, and the government has already announced a relief fund. But, people also want to know who is accountable,” pointed out Narendra Bhondekar, a Bhandara MLA.
“Hospitals need greater manpower so that such incidents don’t happen again. Such units cannot work with just a couple of nurses on duty,” he added. Bhondekar pointed out that a thorough inquiry is important because the neonatal unit of Bhandara was built only a few years ago. Therefore, if it was the case of short circuit then the enquiry committee has to ascertain if low-quality materials or wiring were used when it was constructed, or if it was faulty equipment which caused the fire.
An RTI filed in 2018 by Vikas Mandankar had drawn attention to the fact that Bhandara District hospital lacked fire safety equipment. According to the RTI, the hospital did not have any sprinklers, smoke alarms, fire extinguisher and no clearly marked fire escape routes.
“It is a big hospital with almost 400 beds, yet there is hardly any fire safety measure in place… I had followed up on my RTI twice, and for the longest time, I didn’t hear back. Then in 2020, the hospital authority sent a letter to Deputy Director asking for funds for fire safety,” explained Mandankar, adding that before these measures could be put in place the neonatal ward caught fire.
“We demand that whoever is guilty should be punished. If there was negligence due to which the infant deaths happened, then it has to be brought to public attention,” added Mandankar.
The health Minister (Maharashtra), Rajesh Tope has already said that those guilty would not be spared, and all corrective measures will have to be implemented to ensure that such incidents do not happen in future. Currently, the investigation report is awaited.