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Don’t fiddle as Dhaka burns

  • Published at 06:01 pm March 31st, 2019
It could have been prevented MAHMUD HOSSAIN OPU

Tackling an emergency situation is everyone’s responsibility 

As a news editor, one of my tasks is to look at a variety of news items, and though a commonly held belief is that, after a certain time, journalists become inured to disaster stories, fire accidents plus death of people at the peak of their lives are always shattering. 

In the past few months, there have been several major fire incidents, starting from the complete razing of slums to the incident in old Dhaka to the recent ones in Banani and Gulshan. In between, there have been several other similar incidents.

In one of the latest fire incidents, in the city’s upscale Banani area, the building in question was not inside a congested area, neither was it old.

The worry deepens simply because the structure is relatively new and should have had the necessary safety provisions. Unfortunately, it has transpired that the building did not have enough fire safety equipment. 

Hang on, what about a fire escape, at least?

Many may be wondering why the people locked in the higher floors did not take the stairs. Well, my experience with many tall buildings in Dhaka has taught me that, in most cases, the staircases often remain locked, for reasons unknown. 

In moments of crises, the person with the keys are nowhere to be found, leaving people stranded. 

A lack of firefighting equipment

The first problem plaguing high rises is a lack of proper firefighting material. Just placing a few fire extinguishers does not guarantee security because, often, the residents in a building are not trained in using them. 

To begin with very rudimentary safety equipment, most buildings do not have sand buckets or sand stored in some form to tackle rising flames.

Extinguishers are often outdated and only security guards are taught how to operate them. 

In addition, fire drills are unheard of. In Elephant Road, where I live, most high rises have not had any fire drills in a whole year. Yet, when there’s a catastrophe, the residents of a building are not asked as to why they did not press for such an exercise. 

The blame lies also with the owners, who are ignorant or are too laid back to even chalk out a drill. It’s as if there is a complacent feeling that an accident just cannot be so big as to take human lives. 

The Banani incident proved otherwise. In fact, the same building experienced another fire-related incident in 2008, when glaring gaps in safety became evident. However, no step was taken to ensure further security. 

Many high rises in Dhaka keep the stairways locked on the absurd ground that the stairs and the landings may be used for illicit purposes. In addition, some stairs are often blocked by random debris, making emergency exits tricky.

Countless people living in apartments do not even know where the staircase is located. 

Inactivity of ward administrators

Time and again it has been said that if the ward commissioner’s office is given the task to monitor fire and earthquake safety in different parts of the city, many buildings would be forced to comply with mandatory rules and carry out safety exercises. Regrettably, the common concept of fire safety is limited to fire extinguishers, which is never a fool-proof answer in case of a large fire. 

The new buildings in Baridhara, constructed in the last 10 years, have sprinklers, hose pipes, and emergency water supplies to deal with any fire incidents, while more than 90% of residential high rises do not have water reservoirs connected to hose pipes to deal with a disaster. 

The greatest irony is that, in Dhaka, the offices and residences which have fire drills are at the least possible risk of catching fire. On top, these establishments have been constructed by following safety guidelines and, therefore, evacuating people usually takes less than a minute.

In the Banani incident, the TV reporters were saying that the buildings hardly have any space in between them, as they are very closely constructed. Now, this closeness could also have been used to provide better fire safety if there were emergency corridors connecting the buildings. In fact, simple wooden slabs kept on rooftops to be used as platforms could also have been used to provide swift evacuation. 

Sometimes, intelligent alternatives for safety can be inexpensive, but fully effective.

A fire brigade with the best facilities

There were several critical observations during the fire rescue operation and many social media reactions underlined the reported shortage of water plus the lack of equipment to go beyond a 15-storey building.

Like many other national emergencies, the defense forces were called in along with fire brigade vehicles from several stations. There is nothing wrong in that though for a megacity like Dhaka, the fire brigade should be outfitted with the best equipment so outside help is not needed unless it’s a city-wide calamity.

The shortage of proper material to deal with fires in narrow areas, such as Old Dhaka, were underlined during the Chawkbazaar blaze and the Nimtoli fire nine years ago. 

Since it has become evident that state-of-the-art equipment is essential, the government has to declare a separate budget for fire services and defense in all major cities and purchase helicopters, new trucks, and even speed-boats to deal with fires. 

After the Rana Plaza tragedy, a fire safety exhibition was held in the city, though, at that time, the focus was mainly on factories. 

Lastly, citizens in the capital and other major cities need to shrug off their nonchalant attitude towards fire safety and emergency drills. 

Every apartment complex has a committee to oversee the proper functioning of a building and it’s up to them to make it a mandatory law to have emergency drills at least twice a year. These committees must ensure a variety of fire dousing material within the building so a small fire cannot get bigger.  

We have fiddled enough while the blazes engulfed lives, dreams, and hopes -- it’s time to discard the lackadaisical approach and chalk out a cohesive approach towards tackling emergency situations. 

Towheed Feroze is News Editor for Bangla Tribune and teaches at the University of Dhaka.

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