Synonymous with the boom and crack of firecrackers and the thrill that accompanies these sounds, are the incidents of fire that occur in the city, particularly in the narrow lanes of the walled city, each Diwali. However, regardless of the increase in the number of incidents of fire reported each year during Diwali and even otherwise throughout the year, the city lacks proper arrangements for firefighting facilities.
The municipal corporation and district administration officials concerned too seem to be waiting for a major incident to sit up and take note of the lack of firefighting facilities in the city, particularly during the festive season.
As many as 23 incidents were reported in the city on Diwali in 2011, of which most were reported from the walled city area, while nearly 400 cases were reported throughout the year.
Sources said that in 2012, nearly 25 instances of fire were reported on Diwali, and nearly 450 were reported during the rest of the year.
While officials in the fire brigade department said that as per rules, there should be one firefighting unit for an area with a population of 50,000, the city, which is home to nearly 25 lakh people, has only four firefighting stations. Besides, the department is beset by problems like shortage of staff and fire tenders.
What little it has in terms of firefighting facilities is shared with the neighbouring towns, particularly Tarn Taran, which too lacks appropriate facilities.
Sources said that as compared to eight fire tenders around two years ago, the fire brigade currently possessed six fire engines, which were barely sufficient to cater to the needs of a city which had witnessed immense growth over the years.
The department suffers from acute shortage of staff, with more than 60% posts lying vacant for over a decade. As of now, the department has 55 personnel on rolls, who are required to perform double duty on Diwali and other important occasions. The staff on duty also lacks firefighting attire, which is a must for combating major blazes.
"Due to shortage of personnel and vehicles, the number of shifts has been increased, with each member of the staff working for at least two shifts," said fire officer Sadiq Masih, adding that two new fire tenders were expected to be commissioned by Diwali, but these were not sufficient.
"More infrastructure is required to deal with fires that break out every now and then in the city, and particularly on Diwali, when the risk of fire breaking out is even greater than on normal days," he added.
Municipal commissioner DPS Kharbanda said two new fire tenders were likely to be commissioned before Diwali. "Besides this, we placed orders for three firefighting suits," he claimed.
Meanwhile, the district administration has banned the sale of firecrackers in the inner areas of the walled city to avoid any untoward incident in the wake of Diwali celebrations. It has allotted 65 shops for the sale of firecrackers in the open area in Ranjit Avenue which serves as the venue for the PITEX Trade Fest.
Interacting with the shopkeepers there, deputy commissioner Ravi Bhagat, who was visiting the spot with the improvement trust chairman, said, "Pucca shops, replete with streetlights and drinking water arrangements, have been constructed in the Ranjit Avenue area for the sellers of firecrackers. The step has been taken to avert untoward incidents triggered by outbreaks of fire around Diwali in the cramped lanes of the walled city."
He claimed that temporary power connections would be issued to these shopkeepers on Monday. "The administration will not allow the sale of explosives in any other area in the city," he said.
Staff crunch hits Batala MC fire wing
The fire department of the Batala municipal council is facing acute staff shortage. It has three firefighting vehicles - two big and one small, and only two drivers, of which one is temporary, while the requirement is of nine to 12 drivers for 24-hour duty, said sources.
Nine firemen are needed while at present there are none. The department has only one sub-fireman, while six are required. The department needs 64 employees in all, but while it has one permanent employee at present, the rest have been hired on contract basis.
As the contract period of the temporary employees is coming to an end, the permanent staff may have to face more heat.
Gurdaspur ill-equipped too
A similar scenario prevails in Gurdaspur, where the fire department has only two fire tenders and one jeep, and the staff is one-fourth of what is actually needed. Sources said that in spite of its limited resources, the firefighting staff and fire tenders are often sent to other districts.
Total incidents 400
Incidents on Diwali 23
Number of fire tenders 8
Total incidents 450
Incidents on Diwali 25
Incidents (up to October 26) 350
Number of fire tenders 6
Staff available 55
Shortage of staff 60%
Areas covered Amritsar and Tarn Taran
Population 25 lakh