The Gujarat High Court recently, took note of a report published in ‘Ahmedabad Mirror’ about lack of fire safety arrangements in high-rise buildings in the city and asked the government to start immediate action against such structures for violations. The HC Bench said, “Prevention is better than cure.” It is a sad state of affairs when it takes a court to point out the obvious like a schoolmaster to town planners, architects, builders and developers and also political personalities who have pledged to serve the people. Because it is not just Highrises. It’s the same story with business outlets, factories, offices, malls, and housing clusters. The tendency to cut corners on exigency and fire safety even when the safety norms are mandatory as per the NBC, is thereal problem. It’s only when the tragedy actually occurs, that people wake up and give sermons and unsolicited advice on what SHOULD have been done. And it’s also when the tragedy occurs that those responsible are booked and sometimes, actually punished.

It is an undeniable fact of life that any project you wish to undertake first begs the question “What will it cost?” You want to start a business, set up a school, help the underprivileged or even go out to get a cup of tea that is the bridge you need to cross first. The second consideration that would follow naturally, is whether that cost can be justified or not. The “justification” here can be in cash or in kind.

The subject of disaster management is a hugely tricky one when seen in the light of the logic of cost justification alone. If you construct a building with several flats or offices, you will naturally look to the sale of the units as justification of the cost. The tendency would be to provide the bare minimum to the customer and recover maximum money from him. Here, the tendency would be to avoid adding tiresome costs of fire safety systems and abiding by even the very basic exigency norms as mandated by the NBC. In more earthy language, it can be called the “Chalta Hai” mindset. As a builder/developer or an architect or planner, you should be aware of how important it is to provide for and install safety paraphernalia. Not only that, the follow up to that would necessarily include conduction of regular fire drills, maintenance and upkeep of equipment so that they are in working order 24×7, followed by procurement of the necessary licences and clearances that render the job formally complete. Alas, all this remains on paper. In some cases, a structure comes crashing down, maybe killing a few, before people wake up to the fact that the construction itself was illegal. So where does that place the priority of exigency and fire safety? A scary reality indeed.

The worst blunder to make therefore, is to compromise life safety by cutting corners on vital equipment and training to save money. And some of us have already learnt that lesson the hard way. It is best therefore, that the rest of us don’t wait for the eventuality to visit us before we pull up our socks.

One piece of good news in all this however, is that starting January 2022, the Mumbai Fire Brigade (MFB) will begin an awareness drive in a phased manner to arm senior citizens and homemakers with basic firefighting skills. The training will be free of cost and will be held during weekends in the command centres at Byculla, Wadala, Vikhroli, Mankhurd and Borivali. Explaining why MFB has decided to rope in senior citizens in the drive, Hemant Parab, chief fire officer, Mumbai Fire Brigade informed, “Several senior citizens hold a key position in the management bodies of the housing societies across Mumbai. Sensitising them with fire prevention acts will enable them to carry out regular maintenance in their premises and also, they will be able to identify and alert us about discrepancy or malfunction in fire equipment of their buildings.”

‘Sensible’ adherence to safety norms:

Of the five senses of sight, touch, hearing, smell and taste the first, rightly, is the sense of sight. Without vision, all the skills and strengths of the human being are rendered practically useless. Robberies, murders, burglaries and all sorts of crimes are mostly committed under cover of darkness. Evil itself, is often described as darkness. Therefore, man must protect his visibility at all times to be alerted of impending danger in time and take evasive or defensive action as warranted.

In case of fire or electric failure, it is the sense of sight that gets impaired due to darkness or smoke, or both. No matter how young, agile or strong you may be, you are about the same as a doddering blind aged man trying to escape sure death in a matter of seconds. If one were to scrutinize the loss of life and limb that have occurred down history due to fire accidents or blackouts in enclosed spaces, it becomes clear that two factors, panic and blindness are the chief causes.

They say, “Well begun is half done” but in case of fire safety, well begun is far from done. If you have installed a fire extinguisher in your office but your staff is not trained on correct usage of the equipment what will happen if a fire actually takes place? Similarly, if you have used cheap paper or cardboard signs for guiding people to the exits in emergencies, they will become invisible in a power failure situation. Therefore, the NBC has some clear guidelines on proper safety equipment and their installation in all enclosed spaces from malls, multiplexes to flats and bungalows. Exigency signages must ‘glow’ in the dark and provide clear vision in smoky or hazy environments for one. Also, staff must be trained, fire drills conducted and regular maintenance of equipment done periodically in institutions or locations where people congregate or visit.
It is fashionable to believe that fire accidents happen to others. This Ostrich syndrome is the real problem. Perceptions, however apparently sound, are not the reality. There are those who do not take basic safety measures because they believe that spending money on things that they do not actually need is a waste. They are wrong on two counts.

First of all, the safety and exigency tools that are required for enclosed spaces are mandated by the national building codes and in most cases, civic rules also of the concerned, city, town, taluka etc. This means, if it is found that one is not compliant, one need not have to wait for a disaster to happen to lose much, much, more than they think they may have saved. And secondly, a fire accident or mishap is happening every minute, probably even this minute, somewhere in the world to someone or the other. They may not make headline news but they can happen anytime to anyone and to think accidents only happen to others, is living in a fool’s paradise.

Safety, as I daresay, means to keep oneself protected from external (and internal) harm. It is a vague term with no boundaries and so allows for multiple interpretations. It is a shifting goal post. It means different things to different people in different places and positions and it means different things to the same people in different places and positions as well. However, the term is vital to the very existence of life because without safety, what can one to do or achieve?

Always be prepared and ready in advance, Fires are dangerous, don’t take the chance,

Emergency lighting and glowing clear signs, will save you lives as well as fines,

We have made it our business to make you aware, that if disaster strikes no one else will be there,

it’s not just equipment, it’s not just the cost, lose sight of your target and all will be lost.

So pull up those socks and get on the ball because if it’ not all done properly, it’s not done at all.

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