In 39% of high-rise fires, firefighting system did not work: Mumbai Fire Brigade
Of the 324 fires reported in the city’s high-rise fires between January 2020 and October 2021, 127 buildings, or 39.2%, did not have an operational firefighting system, according to Mumbai Fire Brigade data
Of the 324 fires reported in the city’s high-rise fires between January 2020 and October 2021, 127 buildings, or 39.2%, did not have an operational firefighting system, according to Mumbai Fire Brigade data. In the remaining 197 buildings, this system was operational and was used during firefighting.
In the last month alone, the city witnessed two major high-rise fires, the latest being on November 5 when two senior citizens were killed in a fire on the 14th and 15th floors of Hansa Heritage building in Kandivli in northwest Mumbai. On October 22, a massive fire gutted two flats on the 19th floor of the 60-storey One Avighna Park at Currey Road in south-central Mumbai. One man fell to his death from the building’s 19th floor.
The frequency of fires in high-rise buildings has prompted civic authorities to make official statements urging Mumbaiites living in high-rise buildings to ensure fire safety in their buildings. On November 5, the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC) issued a statement reiterating that it is the responsibility of the owner or occupier of the building to ensure fire safety in its premises and that the fire extinguishing system, equipment and alarm system in all the buildings – especially the tallest ones – are operational, in compliance with the Maharashtra Fires Prevention and Life Safety Act, 2006. BMC had warned that action will be taken against buildings if they fail to comply with the norms. In this statement, the civic body also warned residents against using flammable material for unnecessary interior decorations work and altering fire protection systems and electrical structures.
According to fire brigade authorities, a building’s height is the single-most challenging aspect of fighting high-rise fires. The second is wind speed. Without a robust internal firefighting system that is designed to mitigate a fire immediately, loss of life and property is magnified.
In Mumbai, any building taller than 32 meters (approximately 10 floors without a podium) is a considered a high-rise, according to BMC’s Development Control and Promotion Regulations (DCPR) 2034, and any building taller than 120 metres (approximately 40 floors without a podium) requires an approval by a special state-appointed committee comprising a structural engineer, a geotechnical consultant and the city’s chief fire officer.
“International studies show it takes about 7.5 minutes for a fire to become a full blown major fire,” a senior fire officer said. “The Mumbai fire brigade’s response time after we receive a fire call is about 15 minutes. A building’s firefighting system can respond right away, within the first 7.5 minutes. In cases where this is not operational, the fire would have already intensified by the time our firefighting system starts.”
The officer added, “During this time, the smoke generated due to building furniture, beds, curtains, etc, will hamper visibility of any trapped residents, and of firemen, and increase the time taken to access the spot of the fire once we are inside the building. Every minute counts.”
At present, Mumbai fire brigade’s tallest ladder is of 90 meters. This can access a fire up to a maximum of 30 floors from outside the building. If there is a fire on higher floors in a building where the firefighting system is not operational, the fire brigade has to set up a ‘series pumping network’ using its own apparatus, which is carried to the floor either using a fire lift or the staircase of the building. “This can take up to one hour. A lot of time is lost,” the officer said.
According to the Maharashtra Fire Prevention and Life Safety act, it is the responsibility of the owner or occupier of the building to provide fire safety in the building. Once the fire brigade gives its no-objection certificate (NOC) to a building, it is the building management’s responsibility to do bi-annual audits to ensure the firefighting system is in working condition. It also has to submit audit reports to the fire department.
Called Form B, all buildings in the city need to submit this to the fire brigade after getting their premises inspected by licensed agencies, the official said. “This is different from the original NOC a building is given soon after construction.”
After the fire at Kamala Mills Compound in Lower Parel in December 2017, the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC) set up fire compliance cells to inspect if buildings have submitted their fire safety audits. The parameters that decide if a building is not following fire safety rules include a non-functional internal fire-fighting system — fire alarms, sprinklers, hose pipes and riser systems — blocked fire exits, and non-functional fire lifts.
Mumbai’s chief fire officer Hemant Parab said, “This is now routine procedure. Apart from these inspections, the Fire Brigade has been conducting awareness camps for residents, elected representatives, security firms, students and volunteers. Disaster Response training workshops are conducted in the Disaster Management Training Institute in Parel.”
Vilas Nagalkar, senior architect said, “Fire safety in high-rise buildings includes not just riser systems, but also a fire lift, sprinklers, and smoke detectors. A large number of casualties in fires happen due to inhalation of smoke, so air vents are a must on every floor. It is also pertinent that an operational riser system has high water pressure, as we saw in case of the fire at One Avighna Park, where the water pressure in the firefighting system was weak. Occupants must ensure refuge areas are kept free of encroachment. In many cases, we have seen the building managements lock up refuge areas so that they are not used as store rooms, or the corridors are occupied hampering movement in case of a fire.”