The most recent incident, when at least 18 people died after a fire broke out in a COVID hospital in Bharuch in Gujarat.
A spate of recent hospital fires has also been reported from Maharashtra, at Virar, a suburb of Mumbai, and Mumbra near Thane and earlier in the year at Nagpur.
Lacunae in fire safety measures:
- Fires breaking out in buildings, big and small across India is not a new phenomenon.
- The National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) says 330 people died in commercial building fires in 2019, while fatalities for residential or dwelling buildings were much higher at 6,329.
- Electrical faults are cited as the leading cause of fires, but State governments are also widely criticised for being lax with building safety laws and for failing to equip public buildings with modern technology.
- What are the laws and regulations regarding fire safety and how much or how little various State governments comply with them?
National Building Code of India (Fire and Life safety):
- National Building Code of India covers the detailed guidelines for construction, maintenance and fire safety of the structures.
- National Building Code of India is published by Bureau of Indian Standards and it is recommendatory document.
- Guidelines were issued to the States to incorporate the recommendations of National Building Code into their local building bylaws making the recommendations of National Building Code of India as mandatory requirement.
- This office has also issued advisories on 18th April, 2017 to all the State Governments to incorporate and implement the latest National Building Code of India 2016 Part – IV “Fire & Life Safety” in their building bye-laws.
Do State governments follow the Code?
- Maharashtra, which has been hit by a series of fires, has a Fire Prevention and Life Safety Measures Act since 2008.
- Section 3 of the Act makes the provisions of the NBC mandatory and Schedule I of the State’s law is borrowed from the Code.
- However, reports in the wake of recent fire accidents indicate that the authorities have been unable to keep up with inspection requirements for thousands of buildings.
- A Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG) report for the period 2010 to 2015 noted that in Maharashtra, after a “joint physical inspection by audit of 53 government buildings/hospitals/educational institutions/commercial establishments in eight selected MCs [municipal corporations] revealed that only fire extinguishers were installed in 11 of 53 buildings and the remaining 42 buildings were not equipped with any of the fire-fighting installations”.
- Fire department professionals had earlier demanded third-party audits by licensed professionals.
- In Kerala, obtaining an NOC [no-objection certificate] from the fire department, given in form H-3 for hospitals that are between 15 metres and 24 metres high, requires furnishing exhaustive information on design and infrastructure.
- The rules prescribe firefighting equipment and installations that meet “Indian Standards”, but do not contain a direct reference to the NBC.
- Tamil Nadu’s form for a fire licence, required under the Fire Service Act read with municipal law, is even broader, and no reference is found for compliance with the Code.
Regular Fire Safety Audits:
The main focus of these fire safety audits is:
The occurrence of any fire has the potential to cause severe damage to both life and property.
A Fire Safety Audit is the most effective tool for assessing the fire safety standards of your facility.
It helps the owners to identify areas where improvement can be made and develop an action plan, in addition to emergency preparedness and mock drills.
- Identification & control of ignition sources in areas where flammable chemicals are stored / handled / transferred.
- Review of chemical compatibility in storage areas and to suggest appropriate fire loss control measures
- Review of electrical hazard which are potential causes of fire
- Review of fire detection measures adopted & to suggest suitable improvement measures
- Review of the various active (fire hydrant, sprinkler, portable fire extinguishers) and passive fire protection requirements for chemical storage and handling areas and to suggest improvements as necessary
- Review of Fire Alarm system and emergency fire system of plant
- Review of contractor safety awareness (chemical spill, fire fighting, emergency communication, knowledge of plant hazards & safety regulations) and to recommend suitable improvement measures to enhance contractor safety
- Review of safety awareness and safety training requirements (training identification and efficacy) of employees with respect to hazards present.
The Supreme Court directed all States to carry out fire safety audits of dedicated COVID-19 hospitals.
Recent and earlier fire incidents have clearly demonstrated some of the major shortcomings in our firefighting capabilities along the length and breadth of the country.
The recent fire incident in a hospitals in India has added another dangerous possibility and dimensions to fire accident.
We need to have a serious look at the capabilities of our fire services in this context.
If the tele-therapy machine in the hospital had been damaged, the incident would have assumed a completely different tone and escalated into an even worse tragedy.
It has become evident that State forces lack the manpower to inspect and ensure compliance with safety codes, including the NBC, where it is mandatory.
One option is to make heavy fire liability insurance compulsory for all public buildings, which would offer protection to occupants and visitors and bring about external inspection of safety.