Line of fire

Fire-safety norms are almost absent in most factories. Rampant encroachments make the firemen’s task even more difficult. Ujwal Jalali takes a look at the growing problem
Delhi seems defenceless in the face of rising fire incidents
Delhi seems defenceless in the face of rising fire incidents(File photo)

In your sleep, a vile stench encompasses your senses. Shrouded figures come crowding; their bodies a smooth white, raw melting flesh fused into the bed-spreads they lay on; eyes peeled in mute horror as fires softly scorch their eyelids, tongue. ‘She is only 12 days old… my daughter.’ How will she ever sleep again? How will she mewl, cry? And us, like disoriented shadows, how shall we take her home – this little white bundle... how shall we carry her weight?

Frantic, breathless, wild-eyed as he paced outside the GTB hospital mortuary, father of 12-day-old baby girl named Anjaan broke down before us, demanded justice for his daughter. “I did not know. A friend told me. Neither the hospital nor the police informed. I called the hospital but there was no answer. I rushed here. The baby has died. She was born 12 days ago.” His words come as incoherent phrases, babbling to himself.

The baby-care is responsible; and the hospital which referred his daughter here, he says in blank desperation. “I want justice for all the babies. I request the Prime Minister, the CM, everyone; ensure justice is done. I had saved money for her. I did not know she would...” he trails off into tears.

We stood outside the mortuary as, one by one, the guardians of the six innocent lives lost in the Vivek Vihar neo-natal facility fire emerged with little white bundles cradled in their arms; the weight of the emptiness bearing them down as they shamble towards their desolate homes.

Tragedy struck an infant-care institute in Vivek Vihar in Shahdara area in east Delhi on the intervening night of May 25 and 26 when six newborns were killed after a massive fire broke out at the facility. A week later, another child who had been rescued from the hospital inferno succumed to injuries, taking the toll of the fateful incident to seven.

There were “unqualified” doctors working at Baby Care New Born Hospital, a voice of authority said; safety norms to be followed in cases of emergency were flouted left-and-right, and the neonatal facility was operating without a No Objection Certificate from the fire department. And with that, the authorities washed their hands clean.

Here, outside the mortuary, statements from the authorities meant little, lost in the dismal drone of voices and phone calls. More and more bodies appear before our eyes; the 11 killed a few months back, charred skin, bones blackened from toxic plastic fumes from the Alipur paint factory fire return, there hollow heads bobbing, as if in approval of the authorities.

How will we forget the phone call between two friends, when the 2019 Anaj Mandi blaze trapped Ali inside a building and he called Monu to tell him that he won’t make it out. “Monu, khatam hone wala hoon aaj (Monu, I am going to die). There is fire everywhere. Brother, come to Delhi tomorrow and take me with you. There is fire everywhere... no escape,” a 30-year-old labourer Musharraf Ali, native of Bijnor in Uttar Pradesh, told his friend Monu Aggarwal over a phone call.

Monu could be heard screaming at his friend to run, to save himself; “Ab koi raasta nahi bacha (There is no way now),” resignation responds from the other end. “I am about to die, brother, just 3-4 minutes... even if I die, I will be with you.”

Not just Ali, but 42 more lives perished in the fire at a factory in Anaj Mandi. The deceased were mostly daily-wagers from Uttar Pradesh and Bihar. It should have been a wake-up call for the authorities to prevent such incidents. But, to this day three years later, fire deaths continue. Every year, Delhi reports numerous fires, which sees a drastic spike in the summer.

Heat triggers fires

As mercury levels in the national capital nearly touched the 50 degree Celsius mark, the excessive heat led to several fire incidents; thus prompting a major spike in fire-related SOS calls. Last month, amid the intense heatwave, Delhi Fire Service (DFS) Director Atul Garg told us that everyday, the department received more than 200 calls regarding fires; so far more than 2,990 calls have been received this year. “We are receiving more than 200 fire-related calls per day, this is the highest in the last 10 years,” Garg said.

According to the DFS chief, an increased load on electrical wires and devices during the summer months make it easier for short circuits to take place, thereby causing fire incidents. “So one needs to keep checking and avoid overloading of electrical devices,” he said. In comparison to the winters, the DFS on an average receive 70-80 fire related calls. Due to this sudden jump in calls, the department has been stretched to its limits.

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As per a data shared by the DFS, 55 people have lost their lives in fire-related incidnts while more than 3,000 have sustained injuries in the first five months of this year. Sixteen people were killed in fire-related incidents in January, another 16 in February, 12 in March, four in April, and seven till May 26.

The fire officer advised people to get the wiring of electrical devices checked and see if it can withstand increased load or not. “As the load increases, it is likely that the wiring may not be able to handle it. Install local MCBs in heavy equipment as they provide immediate tripping,” he stated.

Illegal factories ticking timebombs

Outsiders to the capital are often astonished walking down the narrow streets of the city’s congested areas and suddenly coming across a small-scale industry. People usually visualize a factory as a big building in an open space with a chimney on the top, but, the reality bites in Delhi, and one wonders why these are not on the radar of bulldozers.

The city is the epicenter of thousands of such factories which are literally, ticking time bombs. When this newspaper compiled the data of major fire accidents that have occurred in the past couple of years, the factories being run without fire safety standards, were found to be a substantial part of such incidents.

In the backdrop of the childcare hospital fire, the DFS Director said it was operating without a No Objection Certificate (NOC) from the fire department. The owner of the said hospital, Dr Naveen Kichi, was booked and later arrested.

Notably, most of the buildings that are gutted in fire incidents lack the fire safety standards and most importantly a Fire NOC. Every year the Delhi Fire Service provides a Fire No Objection Certificate to around 50-70 factories, however, several still go unnoticed. Another senior fire department official told this newspaper that they do not directly deal with the public to provide a NOC. It is pertinent to mention here that the fire department does not directly deal with the public to provide an NOC. “We are not a licensing authority to do that. It is the duty of the building authority or the civic agency to refer the case to us before permitting or giving a license to a building or even a factory,” the official said.

A Fire NOC certifies that a building has been deemed to comply with the fire prevention and fire safety requirements in accordance with Rule 33 of the Delhi Fire Service Rules. Many commercial buildings in Delhi have not obtained the ‘No Objection Certificate’ from the fire department and operate freely.

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But not all building require an NOC. Many fire affected structures fall below the nine-metre height threshold that exempts them from acquiring a fire safety certificate from the DFS.This exemption often leads to owners ignoring essential fire safety measures, resulting in avoidable casualties and property damage. If that was not enough, the narrow alleys of several areas of the city add problems to the fire fighting efforts.

Firefighting challenges

Delhi Fire Service is constantly upgrading itself both technically and manually, but, the rising levels of temperature and population of the workers in the alleged factories are adding to the woes. Hanging wires, overloaded circuits, old buildings, water shortage, and narrow lanes created hurdles for the firemen and their equipment to quickly reach the site of the incident.

Whenever a fire incident is reported from such areas -- even the fire truck is unable to reach immediately to the accident site and the rescue operation gets delayed. Citing an example of a recent fire in the Chandni Chowk area that led to the collapse of two buildings and took three days for the cooling operation, Garg said, “The fire department faces five to six major challenges during any operation.” When the fire department gets a call, be it a small or a big fire, the main target is to save lives.During this moment, fire tenders need to rush immediately, but congested streets, people making videos and dangling electricity wires make it hard for us to reach the affected area.”

Another official of the DFS said crowded areas and vehicles parked at no-parking zones add to the problems.

“We have a fleet of 240 to 250 firefighting vehicles. Large vehicles can hold 12,000 litres of water, the small ones can hold 5,000 to 3,000 litres. During firefighting, our vehicles can spray 1,800 litres of water in a minute. It takes 10 minutes to empty our tanks, but due to non-availability of water sources nearby we need to rush back to some metro station or any other location for a refill,” said the official.

Overcoming hurdles

When an inferno breaks out, most illegal industrial units are situated in congested residential colonies and there have been occasions when it has become a problem for fire tenders to reach the affected spots.

To tackle the problem of narrow alleys, the Delhi Fire Service has now introduced a motorcycle (Back Pack) and Innova or Xylo SUV for fire turnout in streets and narrow lanes.

In order to negotiate the congested lanes, heavy traffic in various parts of the capital city, the fleet of the Delhi Fire Service is added with a Water mist system that is mounted on motorcycles (MCFR).

These motorcycles fitted with fire-fighting equipment are quick and can immediately reach the spot without any delay. The bike is fitted with two water cylinders which the firemen has to ultimately carry on his back during the firefighting operation. “They operate on a pressure of 300 bars and produce a water mist of 40 micron particle size. The water capacity of the cylinder is 9 liters only,” a senior official said, adding the vehicle is very useful to attack the small fires, electric fires, fires in incipient stage or till the backup support reaches.

Civic body action

The Municipal Corporation of Delhi (MCD) last month issued a directive requiring all health facilities in the national capital to enhance fire safety measures. This includes inspecting fire-fighting equipment, conducting electrical load audits, and installing automatic sprinklers in intensive care units (ICUs). Health facility in-charges are required to submit an action taken report by May 31 to demonstrate compliance with these directives.

The advisory mandates regular checks of fire-safety equipment such as extinguishers, hydrants, and alarms to ensure they are operational. It also stipulates an audit of construction and furnishing materials to replace any combustible materials with fire-resistant alternatives. “All in-charges of hospitals and health units, in coordination with the engineering department, must follow these instructions to prevent occurrences of fire incidents in hospitals and other healthcare facilities,” the advisory stated.

Health facilities are instructed to perform electrical load audits according to the National Electrical Code of India 2023, to ensure that systems are not overloaded, the advisory said, adding, power management systems should be implemented to monitor electrical loads and prevent overloading.

In sites containing oxygen tanks or liquid oxygen, the MCD has directed a strict no-smoking policy and measures to control heat sources. Fire smoke detectors and alarms are to be installed in all areas of the facilities, with particular emphasis on patient rooms, hallways, and common areas

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