Fire Safety in Public Buildings

News: The recent fires in hospital buildings at Bharuch in Gujarat, Virar a suburb of Mumbai, and Mumbra near Thane.

Background:

  • Fires occur in many public buildings in India every year, killing a large number of people and injuring many. The National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) notes that 330 people died in commercial building fires in 2019.
  • Electrical faults are cited as the leading cause of fires in most public buildings.
  • Hospital ICUs (intensive care units) are a great fire risk because they are oxygen-suffused.

Compliance mechanism:

National Building Code of India:

  • The National Building Code of India is the main standard set for fire safety compliance in public buildings.
  • Part 4 of the National Building Code deals with Fire and Life Safety
  • The NBC recommends the location of buildings by type of use in specific zones to ensure that industrial and hazardous structures do not coexist with residential, institutional, office and business buildings. It also specifies the technical requirements for special buildings. The code provides specifications and guidelines for design of buildings and use of certified fire-resistant materials that reduce the threat of fires.
  • It also stipulates the compulsory incorporation of technologies to sound alerts in case of a fire and also fire threat reduction technologies. Example: Automatic fire detection and alarm system, down-comer pipelines connected to a roof tank, dry riser pipelines that fire-fighters can use to douse upper floors, automatic sprinklers and water sprays, fireman’s lift, fire barriers, escape routes, markings etc.
  • These measures can avert deadly fires, giving occupants sufficient time to exit safely.

NDMA guidelines:

  • The National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA) has stipulated requirements for fire safety in public buildings, including hospitals, which incorporate elements of the NBC, besides design guidelines on maintaining minimum open safety space, protected exit mechanisms, dedicated staircases, and crucial drills to carry out evacuations.

State laws:

  • Maharashtra 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.
  • In Kerala, obtaining an NOC [no-objection certificate] from the fire department for hospitals requires furnishing exhaustive information on design and infrastructure. The rules prescribe fire fighting equipment and installations that meet “Indian Standards”.

Areas of Concerns:

  • As per the Union Home Ministry’s Directorate-General for Fire Services, Civil Defence & Home Guards, the National Building Code (NBC), published by the Bureau of Indian Standards, is a “recommendatory document”, and States have been asked to incorporate it into their local building bylaws, making the recommendations a “mandatory requirement”.
  • However, the states aren’t strictly following these regulations while preparing their own laws.
  • Notably the NBC says that for various types of buildings, “in case of practical difficulty or to avoid unnecessary hardship, without sacrificing reasonable safety, local head, fire services may consider exemptions from the NBC.
  • This could lead to watering down of safety measures in lieu of bribes from the approval seeking entities.
  • Despite the existence of a state law in Maharashtra, 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.
  • The States lack the manpower to inspect and ensure compliance with safety codes, including the NBC even though it is mandatory.
  • State governments are widely criticised for being lax with building safety laws and for failing to equip public buildings with modern fire safety technology.
  • A Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG) report for the period 2010 to 2015 noted that in Maharashtra, a physical inspection 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.
  • Though fire safety rules exist in every State, but the provisions of the Code are ignored in practice, and even mandatory certifications do not reflect compliance.

What has been done by the govt. so far?

  • As per the central government’s statement in parliament, a Fire Safety Committee conducts periodical audits on fire installation, heating, ventilation and air-conditioning, electrical sub-stations and other electrical equipment in the Union government’s hospitals.
  • The Health Ministry has circulated strict guidelines in September 2020 stipulating third-party accreditation for fire safety and calling for a fire response plan to be mandatorily in place.
  • In December 2020, the Supreme Court directed all States to carry out fire safety audits of dedicated COVID-19 hospitals.

Suggestions:

  • The state should also consider mandating heavy fire liability insurance for all public buildings, which would offer protection to occupants and visitors and also bring about external inspection of safety.
  • Fire department professionals have earlier demanded third-party audits by licensed professionals. This they feel would apart from addressing the under capacity of the state to ensure compliance will also address the laxity on the part of state administration.