Cover Story

The Unescapable: FIRE RISK IN INDIA

India needs a new approach to fire safety. In addition the codes governing fire safety and governance, we should have guidelines and framework to conduct a comprehensive risk-assessment for our cities. Natural hazards are the 4th highest risk to businesses, up from last year’s 7th position. It is time India implements the fire
safety audit and related fire services.



Whenever an incident of fire takes place, the investigation afterwards highlights issues such as non-compliant construction; lack of precautionary maintenance like the upkeep of extinguishers, fire doors, fire exits and their markings and assembly areas; gross overlook of safety procedures such as evacuation drills; and lack of recording of significant consideration for better response towards flammable materials, and their use in cladding and partitions walls.

City-wide physical changes like the densification of areas, non-compliant use of properties, and change in their use — which leads to local traffic congestion or on-street parking that constricts fire tender movement or delays their access to the affected area — are also blamed.

Why fire accidents are unabated?
India has a fire safety audit to assess the safety of an organisation, but lacks legislative provisions regarding the scope, objective, methodology & frequency of the audit.
A slew of fire accidents occurred in less than a month damaging human lives, properties and goods. The fire that broke out in a factory in Delhi, Mumbai’s Kamala Mills rooftop hotels and Madurai’s Meenakshi temple were disasters waiting to happen. Initial findings suggest
that storing inflammable materials, blocking exit passages, overhanging electrical wirings are some of the causes.
These incidents should be treated as a wake up call. The Surat fire tragedy which took 22 lives of young kids,

has spurred those who run tuition classes in Mumbai to take a hard look at the state of fire safety in their premises. The Kamala Mills tragedy got the Bruhan Mumbai Corporation (BMC) on its toes, throwing them into panic-stricken knee-jerk reaction: suspending five officials, galvanising authorities, managers, health and medical experts to inspect eateries and demolishing unauthorised restaurants.
Now, that a residential building has caught fire, the attention is expected to automatically shift and hopefully become more broad-based. The cause of the fire in this building is yet to be ascertained but no one would be surprised if it was pinned down to faulty management and violation of rules. In all of this, the one point that comes out clearly, time and again, is that where fire safety
is concerned, our cities are forever fighting yesterday’s battles. As Uday Vijayan, Founder and Managing Trustee of ‘Beyond Carlton’, India’s first people’s initiative on fire safety, wrote, “I am frustrated that we as a nation don’t put a premium on public safety.”
He quotes a study sponsored by the Ministry of Home Affairs, which finds that at least 8,559 fire stations are required nationwide, but only 2,087 are in place! The shortage actually works out to 65%.
There is a correlation between urbanization, density, fire hazards and strangely gender!. In 2015, there were 17,700 deaths due to fire, of which 62%, or 10,925 were women.
At least 48 deaths happen everyday and mostly in dense areas of Maharashtra and Gujarat.

A recent report, FICCI-Pinkerton’s The India Risk Survey 2017 ranks natural hazards the fourth highest risk to business up from last year’s seventh position. India is considered at a high risk of natural hazards
with a significant risk to businesses and communities compared to developed economies. India has the scope to strengthen its institutional capacity, financial resources and infrastructure to mitigate the adverse effects of natural hazards. According to National Crime Record Bureau, 18,450 cases of fire accidents were reported in 2015 which injured 1,193 and killed 17,700. Fire has been ranked fifth, up by three positions from the last year’s ranking, cites the report.
There has been a steep rise in the constructions of buildings in
India, especially High Rise buildings.
Because of its peculiar nature, fire in residential buildings, particularly high rise buildings becomes more
complex and the salvaging operations become more difficult and sometimes even resulting in many deaths and huge property losses. In metro cities, high rise buildings lack adequate
in-built fire protection systems. In commercial establishments,
major fires start in storage area and warehouses than production areas. Poorly stored goods, even though they are not flammable, may help to spread fire and hinder fire fighters gain access to the seat of the fire or reduce the effectiveness of sprinkler systems. Goods tidily stored with gangways may help to inhibit the

India has a fire safety audit to assess the safety of an organisation, but lacks legislative provisions regarding the scope, objective, methodology & frequency of the audit


spread of fire.
Fire Safety Audit (FSA) is found to be an effective tool to assess fire safety standards of an organisation or an occupancy. In other words,
it is aimed to assess the building for compliance with the National Building Code of India, relevant
Indian standards and the legislations enacted by state governments and local bodies, on fire prevention,
fire protection and life safety measures. Although FSA is an effective tool to asses fire safety standards of an occupancy, there are no clear provisions in any of the safety legislations regarding the scope, objective, methodology and periodicity of a fire safety audit. Therefore, FSA should be made mandatory all over India and the work should be entrusted to
independent agencies. It is reasonable to have a fire safety audit every year. In India, although there are many rules and regulations, codes and standards related to fire safety, these are seldom followed. There is a need to revisit fire safety audit regulations and state fire services as well.
Fire service is a state subject

and has been included as municipal function in the XII schedule of
the Constitution. The municipal corporations and local bodies are responsible for providing fire services in many states. Due to
lack of resources, fire services are ill equipped in providing adequate fire safety cover to the population.
Based on a 2011 study, 65 per
cent deficiency was reported in fire stations. According to Ministry of Home Affairs, in 144 towns with population over 1 lakh, there is
a huge deficiency of fire fighting infrastructure. The government has provided financial assistance of Rs 176 crore during 2009-13 to modernise states fire services and supplements the efforts towards moderisation of state governments by providing funds. Thus, the government should continue to provide financial support and assistance in augmenting and modernising the fire departments.
This should be over and above higher states allocation (42 per cent) recommended by the Fourteenth Finance Commission.
Thousands of older buildings

in India’s key financial hub are in disrepair, and safety standards are not being enforced, said VB Sant, director-general of the National Safety Council, a labour ministry body that works on safety issues across the country.
“This is a very big problem
… emanating from [a] lack of standardisation and lack of regulation,” Sant told Al Jazeera.
“Some of the safety standards we are adhering to the rules that were made in the 1960s onwards, which are no longer relevant.”
But while human attention is usually focussed on immediate incidents and their geographical context, most cities show the same sad pattern where fire preparedness is concerned. It’s not just Mumbai and it’s not just restaurants and eateries that are at risk here.
Let’s take a quick look based on recent incidents and reports.
More than 30% of Mumbai’s buildings audited by the fire department are said to be unsafe. The Maharashtra Fire Prevention And


Life Safety Rules are quite stringent on paper, including measures such as compulsory fire extinguishers and underground static water storage
tank. But typically, many of these are wantonly flouted, as in the ‘1Above’ rooftop restaurant, which had got fire safety and building permission from the civic body in October 2016. Its emergency exit was blocked and the mandated open space was used for commercial activities.
In reality, the flourishing network of restaurants and pubs has transformed industrial areas into commercial ones. Safety rules include inspection and issuance of a no- objection certificate (NOC) that has to be renewed every year by the fire department following which a license can be obtained from the health department.
It is mystifying, however, that in spite of so many rules, no one inspects the fire safety equipment, while licenses continue to be issued
to restaurant owners. With hoteliers investing crores, rules are not

followed by either the hoteliers, who are in a hurry, or the officials, who just want to get over with the job fast.
Fire safety norms for residential buildings and high-rises are also in place. For instance, buildings that exceed 45 metres, or roughly 12 floors, are considered “high-risk”.

Those who do not follow the fire safety norms would be imprisoned for six months to three years and fined. But are they being followed? Right now, it seems the official focus is on inspection and suspension of eateries alone.

The Mumbai tragedy spurred Delhi too to get into overdrive. Lieutenant- Governor Anil Baijal called for inspections and so far, 7,000 challans have been issued to eateries in south Delhi for violating health and safety rules.

The Delhi Fire Service Act 2007 (Delhi Act 2 of 2009) and Delhi Fire Service Rules 2010 have as

many stringent rules as loopholes. For instance, today, strangely, only 400 out of 5,000 eat-outs have fire safety licenses. This is because only restaurants with a seating capacity of above 50 need to be issued NOCs. Thus, only those can be inspected!
On the other hand, 4,528 licences were issued sans NOCs to other eateries that claimed seating for
48-49 people, even though they have dance floors for 400 to 500. And even in a 48-seat restaurant, a random inspection found bar stools blocking fire exits, bad signage and staircases cluttered with furniture.
The last major fire in December was at Metro Hospital and Cancer Institute in Preet Vihar. According to the Delhi Fire Services, it did not have a NOC!
When the first fire safety law was put in place in 1983, much of the city had already been constructed. Inspections themselves seem to be seen askance, as they are viewed “as a form of license raj”, according to Delhi Fire Brigade chief G.C. Mishra.

There have been numerous fire accidents this year causing significant loss of life and property. While the government and other regulatory bodies have prescribed norms and fire safety measures, implementation and vigilance continue to be a concern,” says the report.

The density, close construction as well as neglect of safety norms make Delhi a tinderbox.
Silicon city got into the beyond-fire- hazards-in-eateries mode too just a day after the Kamala Mills restaurant tragedy. The Karnataka Department of Fire and Emergency Services began a quick-fire audit of hotels, restaurants and pubs across the city under the BBMP limits.
MN Reddi, DGP of Police, Department of Fire and Emergency services declared that a number of pubs were “illegal” and possessed no NOCs. Officials were firm that NOCs would not be issued unless safety measures were in place.

Indiranagar citizens protested against a number of posh Bengaluru areas, decrying rooftop pubs and bars and commercial activities, especially eateries in residential localities that disturbed the locality during New Year celebrations. It was a literal gherao that helped them to solve problems that they had raised through a number of years of heavy protesting, according to Citizen Matters. Notices were issued by the BBMP to various illegal rooftop restaurants and bars that violated legal and safety norms.

While some voluntary efforts are in place, it is puzzling that the Carlton Towers tragedy of 2010 has not really made transformational change in official inspections, even though citizens are clamouring
for it. In 2016, a survey by the fire and emergency department had noted that at least 15,048 high-

rise buildings in the city could be classified as hazardous.
The Kolkata State Fire and Emergency department also got into quick restaurant action. A special drive at Park Street area was launched, where a large number of
people congregate on New Year’s Eve.
Kolkata has faced its own share of horrific fire incidents. 2017, in Badsha, a popular food joint, one employee lost his life in a fire. It was being run without a NOC for three years. Although it had approval for only two gas cylinders, the kitchen had stored six. A civic trade license department official explained that a part of Raja S.C. Mullick Road, on which Badsha is located, is choked with food joints or eateries, posing real risks.

Kolkata Medical College faced a fire accident on the fifth floor in July last year. It was brought under control within 45 minutes, but it brought back the ugly memories of hospital fire incidents in the past three years. As hospitals do not have a “composite fire-fighting plan” and there are many loopholes, the issues have gone beyond control.
In July 2017, West Bengal Fire and Emergency Services department launched an online platform to issue fire safety certificates and licenses upon compliance with the West Bengal Fire Service Act.
Sadly, the vulnerability of hospitals in particular to fire tragedies, owing largely to inadequate firefighting equipment, lack of trained personnel and prevention/rescue mechanisms

is not restricted to one city as this report shows.
No, Chennai restaurants did not face major fire hazards last year. But the fire incident in the Chennai Silks building in May 2017 brought to light the fact that more than 245 commercial buildings, including shopping complexes, banks and hospitals were not following safety norms; this was borne out by information from the Tamil Nadu Fire and Rescue Services (TNFRS).
In the cluttered commercial areas of T. Nagar, Purasawalkam and Parry’s Corner, there is a woeful lack of fire-fighting systems, automatic fire detectors and sprinklers, identified during surprise fire-safety audits.
The TNFRS annual report of 2010 identified that electrical short circuits have led to more than 75% fire accidents. When more electrical appliances are added to the same old wires, they tend to get overloaded and generate sparks. Private firms, even when they amass crores, do not like to spend on replacement
of junction boxes with ‘flame- retardant’ boxes that can limit the sparks, according to R Natraj, former Director General of Police (DGP), fire and safety wing.
Moreover, the TNFRS has limited powers, and instead of suspending licenses, just sends notices to rule violators and reports to licensing authorities. Instead, even a temporary suspension of license for 48 hours would spur building owners to follow rules.

North Chennai seemed to show the maximum violations, mainly because there are many registered as residential complexes but have converted to commercial ones.
Even in residential buildings, there is no independent initiative. Residential associations do not collect money to install fire safety machinery, though people are willing to spend money for lifts!
The survey blames non-compliance of safety norms and under-equipped fire services for the sudden increase in risk posed by fire outbreaks, which comes immediately after information and cyber insecurity and natural hazards.
“There have been numerous fire accidents this year causing significant loss of life and property. While the government and other regulatory bodies have prescribed norms and fire safety measures, implementation and vigilance continue to be a concern,” says the report.
The Ministry of Home Affairs in 2017 told Parliament that the
country in 2012 had just 2,987 fire stations against the requirement of 8,559, a shortfall of 65 per cent. India needs additional 559,681 trained fire personnel, 221,411 firefighting equipment, and 9,337
fire-fighting vehicles and specialised equipment, it added.
A fallout of the lack of preparedness is that 17,700 Indians died of accidental fire — an average of 48 deaths a day — which is largely avoidable, shows the last Accidental Deaths & Suicides in India (ADSI) of 2015.
There was a 300 per cent increase in cases of fire incidents in commercial buildings between 2014 (179 cases) and 2015 (716 cases).

Fire outbreaks in government buildings also rose by 218 per cent in the same period (35 vases in 2015 and 11 cases in 2014). The ADSI report shows residential buildings are most prone to fire outbreaks.
In 2015, 7,493 cases of fire outbreaks were reported in residential buildings, a 100 per cent increase from 2014 (3,736 cases). In fact, 42 per cent of the deaths due to accidental fire in 2015 happened in residential buildings.
A small-town problem too Just 20 cities recorded 81 per
cent of the deaths due to building fires in 2015. Of the 20 cities,
14 are non-metros. Kanpur (147 deaths), Allahabad (134 deaths) and Bengaluru (132 deaths) recorded the highest deaths among 53 major cities monitored by the National Crime Records Bureau.
Despite the glum numbers, the country is casual about handling accidental fire cases. Starting 2000, the Comptroller and Auditor General of India has regularly flagged the Capital for non-compliance of safety norms and under-equipped fire services. Yet the number of distress calls received by Delhi Fire Services has increased from 14,500 in 2003-
04 to more than 27,000 in 2015-16.
At the same time, the ADSI report released in 2015 is the most recent government data on accidental
fire cases and casualty. The last government data on the country’s fire safety infrastructure came out in 2012. The lack of numbers gravely affects the country’s preparedness towards accidental fire.
City-wide physical changes like the densification of areas, non-compliant use of properties, and change in their use — which leads to local traffic congestion or on-street parking that constricts fire tender movement or delays their access to the affected area — are also blamed.
Let us discuss some of the major laws in India governing fire safety and governance.
The National Building Code of

India, 2016
Part 4 of the National Building Code (NBC) of India, 2016, is titled ‘Fire and Life Safety’. It covers the requirements for fire prevention, life safety in relation to fire and fire protection of buildings. The code specifies occupancy-wise classification, constructional aspects, egress requirements
and protection features that are necessary to minimise danger to life and property from fire. It
specifies the demarcations of fire zones, restrictions on constructions of buildings in each fire zone, classifications of buildings based
on occupancy, types of building construction according to fire resistance of the structural and non-structural components and
other restrictions and requirements necessary to minimise danger of life from fire, smoke, fumes or panic before the buildings can be evacuated.



FIRE PREVENTION: This covers aspects of fire prevention pertaining to the design and construction
of buildings. It also describes the various types of buildings materials and their fire rating.
LIFE SAFETY: This covers life safety provisions in the event of fire and similar emergencies, also addressing construction and occupancy features that are necessary to minimise danger to life from fire, smoke, fumes or panic.
significant appurtenances (accessories) and their related components and guidelines for selecting the correct type of equipment and installations meant for fire protection of the building, depending upon the classifications and type of building.
The guidelines for fire drills and evacuations for high-rise buildings are also specified in NBC Part 4.
It mandates the appointment of a qualified fire officer and trained staff for significant land uses.

In 2003, the Union Ministry of Urban Development desired that the Model Building ByeLaws (MBBL)
be prepared, in view of the Bhuj Earthquake that had occurred in 2001, to lay focus on the safety of buildings and for the guidance of state governments.

Point-specific responsibility for all fire-related clearance rests with the Chief Fire Officer. The concerned Development Authority shall refer the building plans to the Chief Fire Officer for obtaining clearance in respect of buildings. Any eligible building needs to undertake
necessary approval or the Completion certificate will not be granted by
the competent authority and the occupancy of the building cannot be administered.

The Chief Fire Officer shall issue the ‘No Objection Certificate’ from the view point of fire safety and means of escape, after satisfying himself that all the fire protection measures have been implemented and are functional as per approved plans.
On the basis of the undertaking given by the Fire Consultant/ Architect, the Chief Fire Officer shall renew the fire clearance in respect of the following buildings on an annual basis:
1) Public entertainment and assembly
2) Hospitals
3) Hotels
4) Underground shopping complex

Our cities undergo rapid physical changes, much like a chain reaction. A rising population demands more space to live and work. As a result,

residential and commercial buildings primarily witness expansion and densification over time. This leads to increased traffic on roads. What we are not able to comprehend is
how to capture this dynamism in our planning and development process, in order to be safe, prepared and responsive to disasters such as a fire incident.
As an urban niche publication, this question always resonates in our mind.
– Do we have or revise the Fire Master Plan for our towns and cities? In fact, the first question is how many cities have a Master Plan? The answer is not even 30 per cent.
– Even if there are any, are they legal master plans or draft ones?

– Secondly, who calculates the original/revised fire risks based on old/new densification regimes, provisioning during the construction and then, the regularisation of unauthorised colonies, land use and later change of use provisioning, speed and delay in traffic movements and its fine tuning with revised fire layouts of towns?

– Even for the installed assets, petty gains, short cuts, negligence, lack of upkeep and inappropriateness of installations, checks and balances go missing, which make them non-functional or under- performing.
So What Should Be Done? 
In addition to the codes and governance overlays which
exist in India, we should have guidelines/framework to conduct a comprehensive risk-assessment for our cities. Risks coexist and can be complex; they are qualitative and quantitative, hence there is a dire need to study these in city-wide and local contexts. By and large, these risk-assessment studies should be an integral part of every master planning exercise, which should be revised for changes in land use and density.
Building awareness among citizens about fire prevention and protection measures is also of paramount importance. Organising fire fighting workshop once in six months in localities/mohallas/schools with the involvement of local councellor/elected representatives is one way to achieve the aforementioned.
There are many offices/high rise buildings/mandir and religious places having fire fighting equipments installed but hardly any person has the knowledge of using them. Lack of maintenance makes the equipments dysfunctional.The schools where mid- day meals are cooked are potential fire hazards. Fire service departments should visit above mentioned installations periodically (once in six months) and take appropriate actions against erring establishments.


There have been numerous fire accidents this year causing significant loss of life and property. While the government and other regulatory bodies have prescribed norms and fire safety measures, implementation and vigilance continue to be a concern,” says the report.

What Has Contributed To The Surge Of Fire Incidents In India?
In the last year’s survey fire was ranking at the fifth position. Now there is a sudden surge in the trend. What has caused this sudden upward trend of fire risks in India?
As per the FICCI – Pinkerton India Risk Survey 2018, these are the reasons for the increase in the fire risks:
1. In 2018, there have been numerous fire incidents and there were significant losses of life and property.
2. There have been inspections across major cities in India, which revealed that there are many factories and high-rise buildings deviating the fire safety norms.

3. To add to this, there is an acute shortage of resources in India with respect to manpower and, equipment for firefighting.
4. There are bodies to regulate fire safety norms, but poor
implementation and coordination between different government bodies continue to be a big challenge.

5. Electrical short circuits are rated as the common cause of the fire.
6. In Mumbai, there is a 25-30% dip in footfalls and business. This is mainly because of the rise in fire incidents post-Kamala Mills tragedy in which 14 were killed. There have been 12 major incidents since Kamala Mills accident in Mumbai.
7. Since fire risk is increasing at an alarming rate, many citizen groups and corporate alliances have stepped forward to create fire safety awareness which will
eventually improve fire safety in India.
There are many instances of random inspections by the fire department or the corporations or municipal bodies this years. But if the violators are not penalised any significant improvement in the risk will be a distant dream.

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