It’s hot, humid evening and a short spell of rain has caused a traffic snarl on central Delhi’s Barakhamba Road. Mukesh Kumar is anxious and irritated. Looking out of the window of his vehicle, he shouts at commuters to give way. His appeals are lost in the din. That Kumar’s vehicle is a fire tender with its siren blaring hardly helps. Every time he slams the brakes –he does it every few seconds -- the vehicle with 12,000 liters of water shakes and halts. It takes time to speed up again. The fire tender takes almost 25 minutes to reach Daryaganj, just 3.5 km away.
The increasing traffic congestion on Delhi’s roads may be a reason for frustration for commuters but for drivers of emergency vehicles, such as Mukesh, it is a killer. The response time of the Delhi Fire Service (DFS) has gone up from 3 to 9 minutes in the past few years because of traffic. Ambulance drivers too talk of delayed responses for the same reason.
The delay in response has serious consequences in a city where DFS receives about 125 calls every day, the Centralised Accident and Trauma Services (CATS) gets 800 calls and Delhi Police’s ‘dial 100’ emergency helpline 27,000 calls a day. In 2015, Delhi reported 1,622 road accident deaths –highest among cities.
“We get stuck in traffic almost every day, especially in peak hour. We shout and scream but nothing helps us get through the traffic. Instead of giving way, many cars follow our vehicle to get out of traffic fast,” says Mukesh, sitting at the Connaught Place Fire station a day later. “When we reach the site late, we get abused. No one can understand what it means to be the driver of a fire tender in a car-crazy city like Delhi.”
His colleague, Pradeep Kumar, 56, agrees. “We have to negotiate some of the worst traffic in old and east Delhi. Most commuters just do not care for our siren; many cannot hear it as their windows are rolled up. In such situations, we have no choice but to call up the control room to sends a vehicle from another station.”
The marriage season often spells havoc on Delhi’s roads with as many as 30,000 weddings taking place on a single day at times. And emergency services bear the brunt. “While singing and dancing on the road, people forget we are going to douse a fire somewhere. When I joined, there were only 15 fire stations but our response time was much less. Now there are over 59 stations but our response time is increasing,” says, Kesar Singh who joined the fire department in 1983. “There have been occasions where we felt we could have contained the damage had we not got stuck in the traffic.”
A recent CAG report said within 1-km distance, DFS’s response time was up to 9 mins and in other cases between 5 and 35 mins. In only 42% cases, the response time was within 5 mins.
G C Mishra, director, Delhi Fire Service, says that his department makes future plans keeping in mind the vehicular growth, which always overshoots estimates. “Because of jams, we often have to send men and fire tenders from various stations, which is a waste of manpower, fuel and time. Traffic restrictions and police barricades also cause delayed response at times. But our men are abused and beaten if they are a little late,” he says. “How traffic halts our vehicles is evident by the fact that our response time had improved by 30% during the Commonwealth Games when there were separate lanes for atheletes and emergency services.”
Roadblocks to hospital
Ambulance services are also affected by traffic snarls, putting thousands of lives at risk everyday. “Truck and taxi drivers to try give us way but most others follow us to quickly get out. There cannot be a bigger example of insensitivity and opportunism,” says Shiv Kumar Sharma, who drives an ambulance of Apollo Hospital, Delhi. “Except for New Delhi area, we get stuck in all parts of the city”. Rajesh Kumar, who has been driving an ambulance since 1996, says there is heavy bunching of vehicles in peak hour at traffic signals. “At times we are in the middle of traffic and nobody can do anything. I avoid Ring Road between 11 pm to 5 am due to the heavy movement of trucks,” he said.
Dr Pradeep Gupta, who runs Life Savers, a private ambulance service, says more traffic cops have to be deployed at busy signals. “The traffic police should manually turn the signal green if an ambulance is stuck. In many cases, they do not want to take the trouble of clearing the way when they see an ambulance stuck near a signal,” says Gupta.
Sandeep Goel, special commissioner, Delhi Traffic Police, denies the charge. “We try to do whatever we can to help emergency vehicles. The real problem is lack of lane discipline on Delhi’s roads. Often there are three vehicles in one lane. If people follow lane discipline, there is always enough space for emergency vehicles,” he says.
Dr. Priyadarshini Pal Singh, head, department of accident and emergency, Indraprastha Apollo Hospital, says any delay in bringing patients -- especially those suffering from heart attack, stroke, and accident victims -- can be fatal. “Every second counts. There have been occasions when we felt a patient could have been saved had the ambulance arrived sooner. Though we keep track of the patient inside the ambulance when it is stuck in traffic, there is only so much we can do inside it. The government should create green corridors for ambulances,” she says.
A senior officer at the Centralized Accident and Trauma Services (CATS), a Delhi government body that provides ambulance services, says their response time is between 15 to 25 minutes. “It needs to be improved. Since not much can be done about traffic, we have been trying to improve our response time by augmenting our fleet and increasing our operational efficiency. We have 155 ambulances stationed across Delhi and will add another 110 this month. We are building a new control room that will enable us to alert the hospital in advance where we take a patient.”
Problem of mindset and travelling culture
Like CATS, Delhi Police are trying to reduce its response time of its PCR vans by adding more vehicles. While Sanjay Beniwal, special commissioner (operations), would not talk about the standard response time, saying “It varied from area to area”, he admits congestion does cause delay.
“We get about 160 calls every involving accident and crime victims who need to be transported to hospitals. We are trying to ensure there is a PCR van in every one square km area. Soon we will add 500 vans to our fleet of 1,000 vehicles,” he says.
But what is more important, he says, is a change in mindset and the city’s travelling culture. “In many western cities, when people hear the siren of an emergency vehicle, they move to the left and stop. There should a provision for impounding a vehicle deliberately blocking an emergency vehicle. The long term solution is to promote mass transport to reduce congestion and ensure faster movement of emergency vehicles,” he says.