A 12-hour fire operation in the government headquarters, which is assumed to be among the safer buildings in the state, has raised doubts about the fire-fighting system that existed in the building. With extinguishers unused, sprinklers absent, fire sirens not loud enough, and fire drills that staffers can hardly recall, a tragedy was waiting to happen.
Chief minister Prithviraj Chavan has ordered a separate investigation into the lapses related to fire safety, in addition to the structural audit that kicked off on Friday. "There needs to be a separate investigation on the fire aspect and we will be engaging a private agency like the National Fire College. However, this will be finalised after the National Disaster Management Agency (NDMA) inspects the site on Saturday," Chavan said.
The Public Works Department (PWD) headed by NCP minister Chhagan Bhujbal, which is responsible for the upkeep of all government buildings, has come in for criticism. In the cabinet meeting on Friday, Bhujbal received flak over the incident, his colleagues said.
Sources said Chavan has asked the PWD to submit a report and clarify what steps it had taken to ensure fire safety in Mantralaya, after a study was carried out in 2008 with the aim of overhauling the fire detection system in the building.
"Preliminary reports show that the mandatory yearly audit or compliance report that is required as per the Fire Safety Act never happened since 2007. So the BMC fire team which was entrusted with taking care of Mantralaya did not even know how the fire safety mechanisms functioned there," said a senior cabinet minister who was present at the meeting.
Tribal affairs minister Babanrao Pachpute pointed out that the extinguisher he used on the fourth floor was of no use since it could not deal with the fire spreading through the electrical ducts.
Chavan however insisted that conclusions should not be drawn before the structural and safety audits were done. "There was so much plywood separating big halls, air conditioned ducts everywhere. The fire audit is important and will look into why audits were not done regularly, if more response time was taken, whether there were lapses in giving permissions among other things," he said.