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Surat Fire Tragedy Once Again Puts the Spotlight on Our Lack of Preparedness to Deal With Accidents

Surat Fire Tragedy Once Again Puts the Spotlight on Our Lack of Preparedness to Deal With Accidents

Reports suggest that 48 Indians are killed in a fire accident every day. The numbers are more daunting for women, as fire accidents in residential areas are higher.

Bengaluru: The devastating fire that engulfed the Takshashila arcade in Surat on Friday, claiming 23 young lives, is a grim reminder of our repeated failures and perpetual state of unpreparedness when it comes to mitigating disasters.

The painful visuals from the blaze at the coaching centre were eerily similar to the Carlton Towers fire accident that broke out in Bengaluru in 2010, in which helpless victims leaped out of windows in hope of surviving, while the others perished beyond recognition.

As a parent who lost his son in the Carlton Towers accident, my heart goes out to all the families who lost their loved ones in Surat. I couldn’t bear to see the images on television. I appealed to the consciousness of TV channels to not show disturbing images of the accident.

While my heart pains in thinking about the grieving families, the question that ought to be discussed right now is, what ails our fire safety situation?

There have been numerous fire accidents in the past few years. In 2018 alone, a fire explosion in a cracker factory in Warangal took 10 lives; 6 died in a fire in ESIC Mumbai Hospital and yet another massive blaze in a Lucknow hotel claimed 5 lives. Then a massive fire that broke out in the Technic plus One building in Mumbai killed 4 and another 17 lives met with a similar fate in Haryana, after a fire engulfed a firecracker unit in Bawana.

As per the latest data published by the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) in 2015, 48 Indians are killed in a fire accident every day. The numbers are more daunting for women, as fire accidents in residential areas are higher.

Here are my thoughts on what is failing us:

Public Awareness

It is true, a fire cannot be predicted. But if we know how to, then we can prevent it. In India, a lack of situational awareness in case a blaze erupts is a cause of major concern. Most of us are not trained to fight even a small fire, let alone knowing what needs to be done, in case one is stuck in a blaze. Chances are, we may not even be aware of the emergency numbers to dial in such situations.

This makes fire safety awareness the most crucial step towards preventing a fire. At the time of the accident, we only get a few minutes. If one is aware of what needs to be done to stave off the fire, a lot of lives can be saved.

Public Apathy

Public apathy is another disconcerting reality that permeates all our lives. Most of us live by the “nothing can happen to us” philosophy. For us, fire accidents are a distant reality, a mere figment of our daily fix of news that that we read in newspapers, discuss with our peers and eventually, forget. Most of us fail to put ourselves in the situation and wonder: what if I was in the same place? Such sensitisation needs to be channelized at a young age, with citizens being made aware of safety practices, whether its road safety, fire mitigation or something else.

Adherence to Fire Safety Laws

Violating laws is very common in our country. Most states in the country have fire safety laws that are archaic in nature but even complying with that should be welcome for a start. Many buildings in India do not adhere to the National Building Code and do not have fire clearance certificates. If we observe the fire accidents in the last year, many of these have happened in buildings that violate fire safety laws.

For this to be curbed, we require periodical inspections to check if our buildings are fire compliant. And since in many states, even the fire departments are not empowered to conduct these inspections, the challenge is larger than it appears.

Rapid Urbanization of our cities

Rapid urbanisation has given way to the construction of a lot of high-rise buildings across Indian cities. Firefighting in a high-rise building is much more complicated, as the firefighters have to cover a great distance vertically. Even the evacuation process is more cumbersome.

A key solution to this, as mentioned above, would be the strict compliance with the National Building Code across the country. A five-year blueprint should be created, as we at Beyond Carlton did, for Bengaluru in partnership with the Karnataka Fire & Emergency Services. This should cover all aspects of fire safety - building fire capabilities, review regulations and compliance, awareness creation, along with key milestones.

Lack of resources in fire departments

Firefighting in high-rises require sophisticated firefighting equipment. In our country, the fire departments are not geared with the best equipment to match the pace of growth of our cities.

Fire departments struggle with human resources. According to published reports, in a city like Delhi, there is a 50 percent shortage of firefighters. Governments need to place fire safety as a priority and review budgetary spends. Increased allocation for equipment, training, filling vacant posts needs to be prioritised.

What can we do as responsible citizens?

The most important bit is to be aware of safety laws of our states and cities. This should be supported by a complete knowledge of fire safety measures. Going a step further, each one of us, must take the initiative of educating others around us.

When you’re out in public spaces, it’s your responsibility to check if the place is fire safe. In case it is not, do not hesitate to question the management about it. In the end, never be nonchalant, because a fire can happen anywhere, anytime and to anyone.

Unless we begin to address all the aforementioned issues, we may just witness one more fire soon, in which someone’s loved one – a father, a mother, a sister, or a friend – will be claimed mercilessly.

(Uday Vijayan is the President of Beyond Carlton, India’s first citizen led fire safety movement that is working on improving fire safety in India www.beyondcarlton.org. Views are personal.)