Playing with Fire, Putting Lives at Risk

The fire at the Chennai Silks textile showroom in T Nagar laid bare the poor fire safety precautions present in large commercial buildings. Though there were no casualties reported and the building has been demolished to make way for yet another multi-storey shopping complex, it remains to be seen if fire safety is among the foremost priorities.

T Nagar being the shopping hub of the city has stores that see countless footfalls every day. Though there are clear building standards for all types of complexes, poor design and the absence of stringent enforcement of the law is enabling many buildings with violations to duck the law.

“Designers play a major role in ensuring the safety and security of buildings,” said R Nataraj, former Head of the Tamil Nadu Fire and Rescue Department . “They should not compromise on this in the name of aesthetics and design. The National Building Code provides comprehensive norms for different types of buildings like hospitals, mercantile buildings, cinema halls and so on that should be adhered to. It is known that there are designers who deviate from these norms but it is essential to have people who go as per the Code rather than the builder or client’s standards.”

A number of others echoed this sentiment, and emphasised the need for designers to be aware of the consequences of tampering with the design to suit the client’s wishes. This has been discussed more seriously after the string of incidents that followed the Chennai Silks fire – the fire at a mall in Purasaiwalkam, at a colour lab in Alwarpet and at the DPI building on College Road.

Though the fire department does check the set up of buildings before providing their approval, they said a lot of the “wrongdoing” occurs after the No Objection Certificate (NOC) is provided. Changes are made to the design and safety takes a backseat.

“A majority of Indians do not consider safety important, it ranks very low on their priority list,” said Sumit Khanna, a member of Beyond Carlton, which is the only people’s initiative for fire safety. “Fire safety is only taken seriously to ensure compliance. This only satisfies the minimum safety requirement and people do not want to go beyond that level as that requires commitment.”

Experts feel our buildings, especially those in congested areas like T Nagar are not capable of withstanding a fire. Most attribute this flaw to the way buildings are designed as compliance rather than safety is the priority. According to the Chennai Metropolitan Development Authority (CMDA) website, there are 194 buildings in the city that have been registered as having violations.

“There is an urgent need to understand the importance of having an in built fire safety systems for all buildings,” Khanna said. “This requires commitment to maintenance of tools. Often when a sprinkler starts leaking, people cut out the water supply. Sprinklers are like little fire fighters and by doing this, none of the other sprinklers work either, when all that is needed is for that one faulty one to be repaired.”

Apart from the mere installation of the devices, Khanna said it is essential for the staff of the commercial enterprise or the residents of the apartment complex to know how to use it. For this regular drills must be conducted and extinguishers must be periodically tested to see if they are in proper working condition.

“The first step to prevent such incidents from occurring is to empower the Tamil Nadu Fire Department,” said V Shivaramakrishnan, a member of the Fire and Security Association of India (FSAI). “In other states, the fire department has the authority to seal a building if it does not comply with the norms. This should be implemented here as well. The Fire Department should be able to check if the NOC norms and even provide for renewal of the NOC.”

Architects, though, do not entirely agree with these views. They said no architect worth his salt would take chances with flouting the rules as they will lose their job if anything untoward happens.

“The norms are all there, the only place where we might be falling short is in the implementation of those norms,” said Anoop Menon,  Principal Architect at A M Architecture & More. “When it comes to an architect, fire safety is something that cannot be compromised on as not only are lives at stake, our jobs are on the line too. However, there should be one comprehensive clearance that is given to developers that takes into consideration all the aspects rather than having so many different types of clearances.”

According to the Tamil Nadu Fire and Rescue Service (TNFRS) 25,897 fire accidents were reported in 2016 in the State when compared to 19,866 in 2015. Of these, 173 were classified as ‘serious’ accidents. A total of 72 lives were lost in fire calls, while nearly Rs 43.04 crores worth of property was lost.


PICTURE COURTESY: The New Indian Express


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