You live at your own risk in the National Capital Region. That was an advice doled out to us generously when we moved to Indirapuram a few years ago. We thought we had minimised the risk by moving into a gated community. Except for the huge power back-up bills and the intermittent problem of clogged sewers outside the apartment complex, so far we have had few reasons to complain.
But last week, we got a rude reality check when a friend called in panic. A carelessly discarded cigarette butt triggered a raging fire in the basement of an under-construction tower in the gated community opposite ours. The smoke was so thick that my friend, who was watching from a distance, thought it was our building on fire.
There was no fire-fighting system in the basement, which was stocked with inflammable material.
It took the fire brigade five hours to douse the fire. Fortunately, there were no casualties and the fire did not reach the upper floors. If it had, we would have waited for Delhi or Noida to send hydraulic lifts.
Home to at least 250 high-rises — some rising as tall as 25 floors — Ghaziabad still doesn’t have adequate equipment to fight fire in tall buildings. The only immediate help they can get is from the Noida fire department, which has a snorkel that can reach up to 42 metres. But a request to buy a taller one that can go up to 72 metres has been pending before the government for two years. This is when Noida high-rises are aspiring to scale 250 metres.
Even as it hands out licences to build new high-rises, the NCR administrations have done little to augment the emergency services.
Ghaziabad and Noida also fall in Seismic zone 4, where the risk of earthquakes is pretty high. Fire brigades are always the first on call when a natural disaster strikes. But since 2000, the Uttar Pradesh government has not hired fire fighters.
Currently, the Noida and Ghaziabad fire departments face a manpower shortage of 25 to 30%. The departments don’t even have basic equipment such as foam-tenders and advance safety gear for its men.
Gurgaon tried to plug its resource deficit by seeking private partnership. Today, the fire service started by DLF, a real-estate developer, two years ago is far better equipped than the ones run by the government. DLF runs two fire stations with 70 trained fire fighters, owns advance equipment such as snorkels that can go as high as 101 meters. It caters to the DLF areas but also helps out the administration in other areas.
The growth of new townships in Noida and Ghaziabad has been fuelled by private developers.
It wouldn’t be a bad idea to create a common fund to pay for the emergency services. But this investment can only take care of the response and recovery aspects of disaster management. Prevention and detection is still the responsibility of those who own the buildings or live in them.
Two years ago, residents of a multi-storey apartment complex in Indirapuram petitioned the district administration, demanding action against the builder when they found that the water-hydrants and sprinklers were dry and the fire extinguishers didn’t work after a fire broke out in one of their buildings.
Residents of gated communities pay hefty maintenance fees but most are not even aware of the evacuation plans because mock drills are rarely conducted.
Fire safety measures or training a volunteer force is rarely a topic of discussion in the usually heated RWA meetings.
The administration, on the other hand, is content with following a perfunctory process of granting fire safety licences. Instead of checking paperwork and building plans, perhaps they could conduct drills and surprise inspections to see if the fire-fighting apparatus really works.
Perhaps, it will take nothing short of a disaster to wake us up.