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Dhaka residents still living with risk of repeat fire tragedy

  • Published at 07:03 pm February 18th, 2019
fire hazards are extreme in residential areas of Dhaka due to a high density of buildings, narrow roads, flammable building materials and old water and electrical supply Syed Zakir Hossain/Dhaka Tribune

Report says 95% of buildings have no fire escapes, 99% have not organized any fire drill, and 70% of people have no knowledge of survival skills needed during a fire 

Nearly nine years after at least 123 people were killed in a devastating fire in a residential building in old Dhaka, the city’s residents remain at high risk of a repeat tragedy due to a failure to enforce the building code, and negligent owners who disregard fire safety measures. 

The blaze at Nimtoli on June 3, 2010 shocked the country and was supposed to mark a watershed moment that would lead to widespread change in how Dhaka approaches the life and death issue of fire safety.

In reality, little has changed for the capital’s 18 million residents, who live cheek by jowl in 1.2 million buildings which mostly flout safety regulations. 

According to a report titled “State of Cities 2017: Housing in Dhaka” by Brac Institute of Governance and Development, around 95% of the buildings in Dhaka do not have any fire exit. Three out of every four of those that do have a fire exit, do not have any signs to direct people towards the exit.

“Buildings in Dhaka are constructed in an undisciplined way without keeping any open space or implementing the National Building Code,” Raihan Ahmed, a Brac research associate who worked on the report, told the Dhaka Tribune.

The report, published on December 31, 2017, also found that 99.3% of residents had not participated in a fire drill in the past two years, while 69.8% did not have any knowledge of the survival skills needed during a fire.

The report said that in addition to this lack of preparedness, fire hazards became more extreme in residential areas of the capital due to a high density of buildings, narrow roads, flammable building materials, old water and electrical supply systems, and the prevalence of chemical factories.

Brac expert Raihan thought the increasing market demand for residential facilities was causing developers to cut corners.  

“Authorities such as Rajdhani Unnayan Kartripakkha (Rajuk) and Fire Service and Civil Defence should be stricter in implementing the building code. Owners should also ensure fire safety measures in their buildings.” 

High-rise risk

The Bangladesh National Building Code requires every building to have sufficient fire extinguishing equipment, an emergency exit system, a fire lift, and fire alarm and water reserve systems.

However, according to a 2010 survey jointly conducted by Center for Urban Studies and Housing & Building Research Institute, about 97% of Dhaka’s high-rise buildings had no fire extinguishing system. 

The survey was based on a sample of 105 buildings in Motijheel, Old Dhaka, Segunbagicha, Siddheswari, Eskaton, Green Road, Farmgate, Panthapath, Gulshan, Banani, Uttara and Airport area.

The government survey[1], however, recorded appalling rates of adherence to these rules. Only 5% of the buildings had emergency exit guidelines, only 3% had a fire lift, 60% had no emergency fire exit, 64% had no fire alarm, and only 31% had a water reserve for extinguishing fires. 

Although 80% of the buildings had fire extinguishing equipment, the survey found it was not standard practise to check if this was usable. 

Md Tauhid Hasan, who lives in a rented flat in Japan Garden City in Mohammadpur, is fortunate enough to live in a building equipped with fire extinguishers. But even he does not feel safe.

“The residents do not know how to use them (so) if there is a major fire this equipment will be of no use,” he said.

Maj AKM Shakil Nawaz, director (operations and maintenance) of Bangladesh Fire Service and Civil Defence, said high rise buildings above five floors in height are regularly inspected and subjected to drills. 

“As per the rule, the owners of buildings above five stories need to take clearance from the fire service before getting an occupancy certificate from Rajuk,” he said. 

“Necessary facilities - including proper water reserve, fire drill, and campaigns - need to be ensured to minimise the loss during any fire incident.”

Bangladesh Fire Service and Civil Defence recorded 8,541 fire incidents in Dhaka from 2013 to 2017. 

Recognising the risk, Prof Mehedi Ahmed Ansary of civil engineering department at Bangladesh University of Engineering and Technology urged the authorities to exercise due diligence in their fire safety checks.  

“The fire service has to be cautious in awarding fire clearance certificate, while owners have to organize proper drills to save their property and residents” he said.

“Otherwise, Dhaka will see a disaster in terms of fire incidents if any major earthquake jolts the city.”  

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