In an interview with Dhaka Tribune's Nawaz Farhin Antara, former Fire Service DG Brig Gen Ali Ahmed Khan discusses capacity and challenges of the Fire Service and tries to shed light on what to do in the future to ensure fire safety for the people in Bangladesh
The immediate past director general of Bangladesh Fire Service and Civil Defence, Brig Gen Ali Ahmed Khan, believes magistracy power for the fire-fighting authority can help take immediate action against faulty buildings that violate the building code in the country.
How capable are we in terms of ensuring fire safety for people and buildings?
As part of development, Dhaka, in the process of urbanization, has been witnessing the construction of many high-rise buildings. But, there are negative impacts because of non-regulated development. Since the monitoring system is weak, unplanned urbanization and industrialization increase the risk of fire hazards.
Many buildings do not have proper fire suppression systems. There is also a lack of water reservoirs, which delays the rescue and extinguishing work, leading to higher damages in case of fire incidents.
Compared to other countries, is our Fire Service capable of handling situations in terms of equipment and manpower?
If the buildings had proper fire suppression systems, the manpower would have been enough. But based on the current reality, the fire-fighting forces in Bangladesh have to make do at a calibre below the required level.
We do have enough equipment, but there is an ongoing project to bring in modern technologies that will help firefighters to go inside a fire area and douse it with minimal damage in lesser time.
What about high-rise buildings? Do you think we can douse fires in high-rise buildings if it happens in several places at one time?
Currently, there are five ladders that can reach up to 16 to 20-storey buildings. So, I think we can fight any fire situation in Dhaka. But if the public and owners make their own security and safety arrangements, dealing with challenges will be much easier.
The firefighters could have rescued everyone from Banani's FR Tower fire. But, we got to know about the fire after it had passed its initial stage. Had it been earlier, the damage could have been less.
There are 54 thanas (precincts) in Dhaka _ all of which need a fire station, but their number is only 15 in the city. We need cameras to detect where a fire started, and drones can also be an effective tool in quick prevention of fire.
It has been a long-pending demand of the Fire Service to be given magistracy power. Why do you think there is a need for that?
We do provide no objection certificates (NOC) for buildings, but the owners do not come to us seeking occupancy certificate, which is a prerequisite on the completion of every building construction, as per Fire Prevention and Extinction Rules. On the other hand, Rajuk issues approval based on the building code, which indicates serious lack of coordination between Rajuk and the Fire Service.
When we receive a complaint and start digging into it, the owners go to court. The inspectors have to wait for years until the cases are disposed off. Since we do not have the power to take immediate action, cases become lengthy and the buildings continue to stand as death traps. If we had magistracy power, we could take immediate action.
The government should grant strong authority to the Fire Service and Civil Defence to make reforms, since it is the only (fire safety) regulatory body in Bangladesh.
Do you think the existing building code needs updates?
In numerous cases, we have seen Rajuk officials approve multi-storey buildings in narrow lanes ignoring our recommendations. It will be a disaster in the coming days if they continue to do this.
You will see that Rajuk approves buildings without following the fire safety plan, which is a limitation of the code. We term buildings above six storeys as high-rise, while Rajuk sees buildings above 10 floors as high-rises. In the end, their certificates are considered as valid, but the difference between four floors creates problems.
Do you believe the authorities can reduce risky situations after identifying faulty buildings? Is it possible in 15 days, as announced by Rajuk?
I do not think a 15-day timeframe is realistic. The Fire Service is conducting inspection activities where they do send a letter to every building with fire risk every year. What remains is to continue the process.
If Rajuk tries to search unauthorized buildings, they will take more time. They should focus on fire safety, instead of prioritizing building code violation, as an issue of greater interest.