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Fire safety: unprepared, unconcerned

mumbai Updated: Jun 28, 2012 01:42 IST
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The lack of fire safety measures at the Mantralaya building, where fire broke out last week, claiming five lives, is not an aberration. When a panel of three experts formed by Hindustan Times on Wednesday visited six landmarks that see a lot of crowd, it discovered that not one of them were properly equipped to deal with fire. Most buildings were, in fact, violating fire safety norms.

HT's panelists found that the structures had electric wires dangling on the walls, non-functional public addressal systems, outdated fire extinguishers and blocked fire exits.

Take the case of the eight-storey Churchgate station building. The passages meant to be exit ways are blocked with scrap material. One of the exits on the ground floor has an ATM booth blocking it.

The situation is worse in the Old Customs House, a century-old structure where the Mumbai collector has his office. All except one of the safety exits are blocked. There is no way for the fire brigade vehicles to enter. The wooden stairs are broken, the extinguishers rusty and unusable, there are no sprinklers and the passages are blocked with piles of wooden furniture. The buildings houses important land-related documents, not to forget office of the Adarsh inquiry commission.

One of the city's popular shopping complexes, Heera Panna has 144 shops, and one fire extinguisher. The complex has seven exits, but to get to any exit door one has to cross the very narrow passageway, which increases the risk of a stampede.

At the Aayakar Bhavan, the income tax office, the passageways seem to be the place to store papers and wooden scrap, none of the cabins has smoke detectors or fire alarms, while the speakers for public announcements are disconnected.

The fire detection system at Bombay high court was switched off, and the wet risers did not have water in them, the panelists pointed out.

"Almost all the places lack fire-fighting equipment, though at some places the fire detection system was functional. There is total apathy towards fire fighting," said Nitin Killawala, an architect and one of the panelists.

Suhas Joshi, chief fire officer, Mumbai fire brigade, said: "Under the Maharashtra Fire Prevention & Life Safety Measures Act, every building is to conduct its own fire safety audit and submit a certificate, after which we will inspect the buildings. Without that, we can't inspect them."

Six spots inspected

Churchgate station -- 1/10

What the panelists found

There's little here to fight fire or escape it, with blocked fire exits, poor fire detection and fighting systems. The building's glass façade reduces ventilation inside, which will convert it into a smoke chamber if a fire breaks out. The eighth floor has a shed that houses the canteen, which has LPG cylinders. All fire extinguishers are past their expiry dates.

Old Customs House Fort --0/10

What the panelists found

The structural frame of the building is highly dilapidated. With broken wooden staircases and no fire escape stairs, the building, where confidential revenue documents and land holdings adding up to crores of rupees are stored, has old fire extinguishers and poor fire response system. Old furniture has been dumped in the passageways, blocking the path in case of emergencies.

"No amount of renovation and rework can revive this century-old structure. Important documents need to be moved out of this tinderbox at the earliest. The structure can be used to set up a cultural centre or museum."
--Nitin Killawala

Bombay high court, Fort -- 2/10

What the panelists found
The three-storeyed heritage structure, which has thousands of lawyers and claimants visiting it every day, is not at all equipped to deal with a fire. Only the courtroom has a fire detection system. The electrical wiring is haphazard and the plywood corridors can easily catch and spread fire. The library of the building, which houses more than one lakh reference books, does not even have a fire extinguisher.

Heera Panna Shopping Centre, Haji Ali --2/10

What the panelists found
One of the city's oldest shopping markets for electronic goods and accessories, Heera Panna, with 144 shops, has only one visible fire extinguisher. The centrally air-conditioned shopping zone has a rudimentary fire detection system, and electric wires dangling across the corridors. In certain sections, the clamped wires are untidily hidden with a false ceiling.

"The shopping zone has no signboards to direct people towards the exit doors. It has highly combustible material such as perfumes, electronic goods, etc."
- Pankaj Joshi

University of Mumbai, Fort campus -- 4/10

What the panelists found
The administrative division of the university houses important student documents. There is fire detection system in place, the wide passageways and the fact that the building is only two storeys high will make evacuation easier. The grills fixed along the corridor windows could make refuge access difficult.

"The fire system is badly maintained. We did not find any fire extinguishers."
- Pankaj Joshi

Aayakar Bhavan, New Marine Lines -- 2/10

What the panelists found
Most of the corridors at the head office of the income tax department were blocked with iron cupboards and piles of documents. All fire extinguishers there have expired in 2010, and there are no fire detection systems. Though it has public addressal system to alert people during an emergency, it is not in working order. The relatively new building has neither a well-defined refuge area nor adequate fire escape staircases.

"The electrical panel has been fixed at a low height on the passageway, making it convenient to tamper with or accidentally touch."
- Suleiman Bhimani