Making fire safety outlive the news: A 10-point strategy

Here is a 10-point agenda for relevant stakeholders to bolster the growing demand for fire safety measures
Image of a fire extinguisher used for representational purpose only
Image of a fire extinguisher used for representational purpose only

BENGALURU: National Fire Service Week is celebrated every year in India from April 14 until April 20. It is in remembrance of the 66 firemen who perished in the fire that erupted and the explosions that followed on April 14, 1944 at the Victoria Dock in the Bombay Port. Here is a 10-point agenda for relevant stakeholders to bolster the growing demand for fire safety measures

1. Increase awareness on basic emergency response protocol

This is an immediate need. Commercial complexes have to educate their guests about fire safety and also train its staff to handle a fire crisis. A description of dos and don’ts such as ‘crawl on the
ground with a wet handkerchief or a napkin pressed to the face to avoid suffocation’, should precede the pages of the menu. Recently, the CEO of a prominent restaurant review website announced that restaurants that do not show compliance with fire safety regulations will not be eligible to participate in the website’s popular eatery award. This is a laudable move and must be replicated.

2. Empower firefighters

There is a shortage of manpower to conduct repeat inspections, and firefighters are not given due authority to shut down a facility in case of violations. That ability lies in the hands of either the
police or the municipal commissioner. The fire services do not allow mid-level entry of competent fire
officers, creating an expertise logjam. Lacking in power and number, firefighters are made to take the fall in case of a well-publicised issue.

3. Make it mandatory that ONLY trained officers will issue compliance certificates

In several states, inspections are often conducted by regulators who do not understand fire safety regulations that go beyond ticking off items on a prepared checklist. There has to be a mechanism for
states and local bodies to train and certify enforcers in a mandatory programme that encapsulates the intricacies of fire safety. Only those officers who receive the certificate should be enlisted for inspections.

4. Rope-in third-party players for certification

This will ease the burden of the fire-fighting community and also help to ensure non-partisan investigations and inspections. Any organisation with a proven track record of capabilities in conducting building inspections should be roped in for a public-private partnership model.

5. Invest in research

While there is a college for fire safety (one and only) at Nagpur, there are only a handful of people in India who have doctorate degrees on the subject. We need scientific collection and analyses of raw data (as done by Federal Emergency Management Agency in the US) to come up with best and sustainable
practices in fire prevention.

6. Fire forensics a must

Forensics can help relevant stakeholders learn from past mistakes and devise prevention strategies. Also, there is no dedicated fire forensics laboratory in India. Naturally, it is possible that the investigation may not be scientific.

7. Demystify the National Building Code (NBC)

First drafted in 1986, NBC is the guiding force for building regulations in India. However, the lack of regulatory impetus for the Code means that the states or the municipal authorities can override the NBC to create their own by-laws that may not include the necessary criteria for fire safety. Plus, most
enforcers do not comprehend the NBC.

8. Overcome the limitations of the federal structure

For instance, in Karnataka, the fire services are at a state-level, but come under the police department, where issues are viewed from a law and order lenses rather than safety. In New Delhi and Mumbai,
fire services fall under the municipal corporation and thus have limited power and lack authority.

9. Address infrastructure woes

Fire stations are inadequate and ill-equipped with the latest and the best technologies for fighting fires. There are 1,705 fire stations with 6,026 fire tenders/vehicles manned by total 49,769 fire
professionals in the country (Ministry of Home Affairs and the Standing Fire Advisory Council). The L1 tender policy that is in vogue for procuring fire safety equipment. Here the lowest bidder wins the tender results in fire services departments acquiring less than desired equipment.

10. Involve the insurance sector and the building community

An analysis by SBI General Insurance on their fire insurance segment shows that between 2007 and 2017, the gap between the premium income and claims has been progressively narrowing. In 2016-17, the company received Rs 1,28,128 crores in premium, but paid out Rs 1,12,371 crore in fire accident claims. The government must consider exercising some control over insurance companies  issuing fire safety policies.

Another important aspect is to bring architects and builders under the lens for violation of fire safety rules while designing the building. In the US, this is an gross anomaly, as architects and builders are the primary custodians of fire safety of any building.

(The writer is a Senior Regulatory Head, Building and Life Safety Technologies, UL, South Asia)

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