Are We Creating Expensive Death Traps?

Sensational heading? Possibly. Is it far from the truth? Sadly, the answer is NO.

Please read on.

Mumbai has experienced 400 fires in 2017. That is one fire per day on an average. Many lives have been lost recently in Mumbai. The reasons are still being investigated. If the newspaper reports are to be believed, then the blame has been assigned to activities not permitted by the authorities, to temporary construction built out of combustible material, to electrical short circuits and to lack of fire escapes etc. In due course of time, we hope, the guilty will be identified and appropriate action would be taken by the law. These incidences will then reside in some of our less accessed brain cells.

But such incidences should not happen at all. The question is “Are we, as a society, prepared to take the basic corrective actions?”

I leave this question for you to answer.

Every newspaper, now-a-days, is ablaze with advertisements for swanky apartments in high rise buildings. Nice looking pictures of happy families, swimming pools, greenery etc.

No advertisement ever mentions what kind of firefighting/life safety equipment has been installed. It probably does not help in selling an apartment.

But does it not make a sense to know? How many customers ask that question and how many sales persons, working for the developers, know the answer? When I asked this question to some sales people, the best answer I got was “It is as per the municipal regulations”

Any building service is a system. It must be designed properly with adequate safety margins, all the components must be specified correctly, the quality of the component and its installation must be thoroughly checked and certified. The system should also be maintenance friendly and must require low upkeep.

The National Building Code 2015 has moved in the right direction, but it is not enough.

Here are some observations (I will stand corrected with an apology, if someone points out otherwise)

1. No university or technical board in India, to the best of my knowledge, provides a degree or diploma in Building Services engineering. Currently, mechanical engineers and electrical engineers design these systems. Some aspects of the firefighting such as fire rating of material is not a part of their training. Neither do your Architects have any training in Fire Engineering. Surely, they can acquire it later, but without proper training, finer but vital points may escape attention. In many countries, buildings services engineering is a specialty and universities/ organizations provide training.

2. The decisions about the quality and sometimes quantity (grandiosely called as value engineering) of the components and the selection of the Contractor is based on the lowest cost.

3. The preferred professional, to obtain various permissions for the services, is the one who can meander through the corridors of power to convince the authorities on the most convenient interpretation of rules.

4. Most casualties in a fire incidence are not due to fire but are due to asphyxiation. Modern techniques, such as CFD analysis, available to predict passage of fire and smoke through a building. Such an analysis may lead to addition of fire doors or deletion of blind passages etc. I know that when one municipal fire officer rightly insisted on having a CFD analysis for a mall, the consultant looked like he had been hit by a lightning bolt. Later I was told the permission has been obtained without producing the analysis.

5. Many developers or their consultants do not have specially trained firefighting quality inspection personnel, therefore the quality of installation and components is checked only from a general point of view or left to be checked by the installation contractor.

6. Fire doors or fire walls, to isolate the spread of fire and smoke, are generally not provided in residential buildings and in many commercial buildings. Refuge floor is viewed as a necessary evil and gets a step-motherly treatment.

7. It is generally the responsibility of the fire-fighting equipment suppliers and contractors to obtain appropriate certificates from the municipal authorities, till then their final bills are held up. This is because neither the developer nor the consultant has any personnel who can check the quality firefighting installation. In many countries, there are certified/licensed agencies to install firefighting systems and for inspection of the quality of installation. Both or them, by law, must be different, to avoid conflict of interest.

8. The highest firefighting ladder that is available with Mumbai fire brigade is 90m tall i.e. it can reach a till the top of a 30-story residential building, provided it can get close enough to the building. In Mumbai, many buildings are more than 30 stories tall.

9. Most of the fire hydrants in Mumbai are in a state of disrepair or are dysfunctional or are inaccessible due to some obstruction. In many countries offender attracts stiff punishment if he blocks the access to a fire hydrant. Sadly these fire hydrants are in some of the oldest parts of the island city where the buildings are devoid of any firefighting systems.

10. The occupants of the building believe in infallibility, immortality and the GOD so no testing or maintenance is done till some service breaks down or there is disaster.

The situation today reminds me of an advertisement on the TV that appeared in 1980s / 1990s. It showed a man speeding on a bike, without wearing a helmet, about to be hit by another vehicle. The screen would then go blank for about two seconds. Next frame showed a coconut being hammered to pieces with a voice saying

“YOUR HEAD, YOUR DECISION”

The screen has just gone blank on the danger of firefighting. Now the decision is OURS!

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