Flirting with danger in high-rises
A recent fire on the ground floor of an apartment complex in the Kerala capital showed how ill-prepared people are to tackle a blaze. T. NANDAKUMAR does a status check
Dangerous oversight:Though most high-rise buildings have fire-fighting systems, not all are in working condition.
The fire which broke out on the ground floor of an apartment complex near Vellayambalam junction in Thiruvananthapuram on April 24 was an eye-opener for many residents living in high-rise buildings.
All hell broke loose as soon as the blaze started. When smoke began billowing out of ducts, residents on the upper floors panicked and ran helter-skelter. Neither the residents nor the security guards had any idea of the fire-safety equipment in the building.
Fire-fighters who dashed to the scene found that the on-site hose reels were stuck and there was no water in the overhead tank. Fire-fighting operations were delayed by the lack of emergency equipment. Five fire tenders were pressed into service to douse the blaze. Except for the damage to the equipment inside a bank located on the ground floor, no loss of property or life was reported.
The incident, however, sent shock waves through the city. Apartment dwellers started thinking about the abject lack of fire-safety measures and their poor preparedness in handling an emergency situation. Suddenly, fire safety has become a priority issue.
Very few residents, if any at all, know even how to operate a fire extinguisher. Nobody has been trained in using a fire hose or what to do in an emergency. Fire-safety equipment, mandatory for certification of high-rise buildings, is never subjected to periodic inspection. Mock drills and emergency evacuation are never carried out.
With high-rise apartments sprouting up all over the city, the issue of fire safety has assumed seriousness. Residents today realise that preparedness is more important than reacting to a calamity. The Fire and Rescue Services is crippled by the lack of skylifts and other equipment to fight fires in high-rise structures.
In India, the fire-safety norms are dictated by the National Building Code of India. The Kerala Building Rules also specify stipulations for fire safety. It is mandatory for multi-storey buildings to install fire prevention equipment. Residential buildings with more than three floors and commercial buildings with more than two floors have to obtain a no-objection certificate from the Fire and Rescue Services.
The certificate is a prerequisite for the apartments to secure door numbers from the local body.
But the role of Fire and Rescue Services ends with the certification. The public utility is not empowered to carry out periodic inspection of fire-safety equipment and ensure its proper functioning. There is no mechanism to ensure that the occupants of a high-rise building are prepared to handle a fire.
The building code and rules specify requirements for different areas of the building. For the basement car-parking areas, they prescribe automatic sprinklers that get activated whenever fire or smoke is detected.
Fire ducts are to be incorporated into the structure of the building and rooftop water tanks for fire extinguishing are also mandatory. The underground water sumps are to be equipped with a main pump and a standby pump with generator. But occupants of apartments in high-rise structures are not aware of the fire-safety norms.
“The situation is pathetic in older buildings,” says C.S. Vinod, president, Apartment Owners' Association of Kerala. “Safety measures are woefully inadequate. The red pipes that are supposed to carry water for fire-fighting are mostly rusted and fail to serve the purpose. Fire escapes are either dismantled by the builder or blocked by the occupants for dumping unused household equipment. Even a small fire could trigger a wave of panic and result in utter confusion.”
Apartment owners feel that the reticulated LPG supply system that has become a norm in the building sector has added another dimension to the threat of fire hazards in high-rise structures. They fear that a leak in the network of pipes that extend from the storage room in the basement to the apartments on different floors can prove disastrous.
Basic fire-fighting equipment is absent in the storage rooms where LPG cylinders are stacked.
Mr. Vinod points out that even security staff are not trained to handle a fire and manage the situation. “Fire escape plans are not exhibited in corridors, and hose reels on different floors are kept covered up and locked. Many apartment complexes lack the mandatory space for fire tenders to manoeuvre around the building. Most apartment owners have never seen or participated in a mock drill,” he says.
Residents allege that fire consultants engaged by builders provide safety equipment on rent solely for the purpose of satisfying the NOC requirement. “The equipment is often later dismantled and taken to another site,” Mr. Vinod says. “The racket thrives in the absence of a mechanism for periodic inspection.”
The association is planning to launch a State-wide campaign to create awareness among apartment owners of the importance of fire-safety measures and the need to be prepared. It has plans to organise mock drills at different places with the assistance of Fire and Rescue Services personnel.
An enforcement agency with powers for periodic inspection and certification is absolutely necessary for fire safety, Mr. Vinod says. A senior Fire and Rescue Services officer says that most fire accidents can be managed within the premises with functional equipment and properly equipped residents. He, however ,admits that a statutory provision was necessary for periodic inspections to verify and ensure fire-safety measures in buildings.
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