The issue of Urban Fires in India – Explained, pointwise

Introduction

Urban fire has the potential to rapidly spread to adjoining structures. These fires not only take life but also damage and destroy properties such as homes, schools, commercial buildings, etc.

The issue of urban fires came in the news after a fire caused the death of 15 Covid-19 patients in the intensive care unit (ICU) of Vijay Vallabh Hospital in Virar, 50 km from Mumbai. This raises a question on the efficacy of fire safety norms that fail to prevent such tragic incidents.

Current Scenario of urban fires
  • It was suspected that the fire at the Virar Hospital Fire begun from the compressor unit of the AC. It took the lives of 15 patients.
  • The CM has announced a grant of 5 lakh to the family members of the deceased and 1 lakh for injured persons.
  • The current tragedy comes within a month of the Bhandup Hospital Fire in Mumbai that led to the death of nine COVID-19 patients.
Data on Urban Fire incidents
  • India has witnessed many tragic fire incidents. Eg – Uphar cinema, New Delhi (1997); Kamala Mills, Mumbai (2017) and Taxila Coaching Centre, Surat (2019).
  • According to National Crime Records Bureau figures, 17,700 Indians died due to fire accidents in 2015. 
  • Maharashtra and Gujarat, our two most highly urbanised states, account for about 30% of the country’s fire accident deaths.
  • The India Risk Surveys 2018 has placed India at 3rd position in fire incidents. This signifies the grave risks of fire incidents to urban habitats.
Causes for urban fire accidents
  • Faulty Electrics: These are the biggest cause of workplace fires. Loose wires, overloaded plugs, old equipment etc. can all result in a fire accident.
  • Flammable and Combustible Materials: Urban premises that hold any number of materials that are flammable or combustible represent a dangerous hazard.
  • Human Error: When staff are not trained properly, they are at risk of making catastrophic mistakes. Accidents such as placing liquid near electrical equipment, burning food in the kitchen or spilling flammable liquids have occurred due to human error.
  • Lack of awareness among people: In many accidents, it was observed that firefighting equipment was installed. But there is no knowledge training for the persons to handle the equipment.
Fire Safety Management in India
  • Fire service is a state subject and also has been included as a municipal function in the XII schedule of the Constitution. 
  • Many states have established Fire & Emergency Services through a statutory Act. These acts were based on the Model Fire Service Bill circulated by the Ministry of Home Affairs.
    • Similarly, in some states, municipal corporations and local bodies are responsible for providing fire services.
  • Currently, the National Building Code -2016 is the basis for fire safety norms in India.
  • Apart from that, India is also taking certain proactive institutional mechanisms to address fire risk. This includes,
    • At the Central level, the Director-General of Civil Defense, Home Guards, & Fire Services under the Ministry of Home Affairs is assisted by the Fire Adviser. He will deliberate upon the management of fire services. 
    • In addition, the Standing Fire Advisory Committee provides inputs for improving fire management in the country. 
    • The National Fire Service College, Nagpur provides training and education.
Issues in Urban Fire Safety Management
  • Lack of robust fire mitigation technologies: Most of the modern Buildings in major cities lack sufficient in-built fire safety services such as smoke alarms and sprinkler systems. These systems operate as early warning systems and fire control measures.
  • Poor adoption of Model Fire Safety Bill: The centre has introduced a model bill in 2019 for Maintenance of Fire and Emergency Services of a state. This focused on prevention, mitigation and response of Fire incidents, but many states have failed to adopt its provisions, resulting in greater fire incidents.
  • Lack of compliance: Many buildings in heavily congested areas of India do not adhere to the National Building Code and do not have fire clearance certificates.
    • For instance, the Surat Coaching centre building didn’t have any emergency exit. This forced the students and the instructors to jump off the building to escape the fire. However, in the process, they lost their limbs and life as well.
  • Rapid Urbanisation: This has increased the proliferation of high rise buildings due to scarcity of land. However, ensuring fire safety in them is a complex affair due to lengthy exit routes and more fire-prone areas.
  • Development creating greater risks: The sectoral advancement in the country has enhanced urban fire safety concerns – 
    • In the industrial areas, wear and tear of machinery, storage and new materials etc. add new urban fire risks every day. 
  • Problems associated with Fire Services: There are certain inherent concerns with the fire services. Such as limited financial resources, working in high-crime areas. Further, they are poor in leveraging relationships with citywide institutions, reaching out to residents to focus on fire safety. 
    • Further, there is an inadequate number of fire stations and high traffic congestion thereby leading to greater response time.
Suggestions to control urban fire
  • Enactment of a Fire Act in every state: The states which have not enacted their own Fire Act should immediately enact a suitable Fire Act based on the 2019 model bill.
  • Following Fire Safety Standards: The Home Ministry must make sure that National Disaster Management Guidelines on Scaling, Type of Equipment and Training of Fire Services. The States has to duly follow them.
  • Regular Auditing: There should be time-bound fire and electric audits of all hospitals within the municipal area. Moreover, the government has to conduct third-party fire safety audits throughout the urban areas.
  • Mock Drills: The fire services have to conduct regular fire safety drills so that people are aware of what to do in the event of such a tragedy.
  • Awareness Generation: A significant emphasis needs to be placed on creating awareness among different stakeholders like citizens, administrators, politicians, builders, engineers etc.
  • Infrastructure and Technology: Simple interventions like constructing water storage tanks at suitable locations can provide water during fire emergencies. In addition, adopting modern technology such as water mist and drones is the need of the hour.
  • Financial support to the fire safety department: The government should provide financial support and assistance in augmenting and modernising the fire departments
    • For urban areas, the government can impose a fire tax/levy. The government can earmark the revenue generated for the improvement and upkeep of the fire services.
    • Similarly, fire management has to incorporate innovative funding through public-private partnerships.
Conclusion

Through conscious planning, the government has to strengthen and upgrade the Fire services in India. To achieve this facet, a robust institutional mechanism and coordinated approach including all concerned stakeholders is desired.

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