‘Mumbai’s high-rises are a death trap for firefighters’

Panduranga Mhaske
Monday, 18 June 2018

High-rises face serious fire risk due to blatant flouting of safety norms, ill-equipped fire brigade.

Mumbai: The blaze last week at Mumbai’s posh Beumonde, a high-rise in Prabhadevi, has exposed the serious shortcomings of the city’s firefighting equipment. It has also turned the spotlight on the manner in which permissions are given to high-rises without checking whether firefighting equipment can reach such heights.

The fire was particularly alarming as it appears that several aspects of the fire code were ignored during the construction and operation, including lack of required sprinklers inside apartment units, inadequate width of the approach road, an inadequate amount of required open space for egress, and insufficient exiting facilities. A second staircase is required for all Mumbai buildings of 70 metres or greater height where the horizontal traveling distance is greater than 22 metres.

The incident happened in the afternoon, in broad daylight, and so the fire brigade could rescue 90 people trapped in the building. Also, given the hour, most residents were not at home. However, the fire brigade team was unable to reach the 33rd floor of the tower. 

Speaking on the condition of anonymity, fire officials admitted that the Mumbai Fire Brigade is not prepared for firefighting in high-rises owing to lack of proper equipment. “We face many problems during fires in high-rise buildings every time. The building should be self-equipped to tackle fire incidents, which doesn’t happen,” said an officer of the Mumbai Fire Brigade.

The BMC currently has only three fire-fighting vans that can tackle fires in high-rises and the van with the tallest ladder has a reach of barely 67 metres, while the city already has high-rises that are nearly four times as tall. The BMC has purchased a fire-fighting snorkel van from Finland, but even that has a reach of barely 90 metres (or 30 storeys). 

Fire officials say that they are also facing issues like loss of wireless signal and difficulty in carrying fire-fighting equipment to the upper floors of the current high-rises and that these problems will get exacerbated as the skyscrapers get taller.

“High-rises are like death traps for firefighters. Lack of proper ventilation leads to dense smoke being accumulated and wooden furniture burns to produce nitrogen and carbon monoxide. While fighting fires in high-rise buildings, we can’t even see each other and have to depend on walkie-talkies to figure out where we are supposed to go and the trapped people,” said the official.

“In such situations, wireless communication could mean the difference between life and death not only for the firefighters but also for the people trapped inside the buildings. In high-rises, however, wireless signals take a huge hit above the 20th floor. The buildings are made of thick concrete and steel and the signals get weaker the higher up we go,” the official added.

“That also hampers the rescue operation because we are not able to understand the instructions given by senior officials. We have to act purely on instinct and we also fear for our life in such situations,” he added. 

Sada Sarvankar, Shiv Sena MLA from Dadar, raised questions about construction of buildings. “If the fire brigade is not equipped, then how can the BMC allow construction of such high-rises,” Sarvankar asked.
RTI activist Anil Galgali while raising question about the fire audits said, “As as per the Maharashtra Fire Prevention Life Safety Act 2006, it is mandatory for the owners, occupiers, or housing societies to get fire audits conducted by the approved and licensed auditor of the BMC. But the fire brigade and the BMC has failed to do so.”

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