Lessons from London: Dotted with tall buildings, Delhi-NCR is not fire-safe

Besides the poor enforcement of safety and building bylaws, the fire departments lack latest technologies and manpower to operate in life-threatening situations
There are about 6,400 high-rises in Delhi and its nearby cities.
There are about 6,400 high-rises in Delhi and its nearby cities.
Updated on Jun 15, 2017 05:59 PM IST
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Hindustan Times | By, New Delhi/gurgaon/noida

Even as people from across the globe watched in shock and awe the massive blaze in a 24-storey tower block in West London on Wednesday, questions were raised on the poor fire safety record of high-rise buildings that have mushroomed in Delhi-NCR.

Death of firemen in two recent incidents in Delhi exposed how ill-prepared the national capital was in dealing with disasters. Besides the poor enforcement of safety and building bylaws, the fire department lacks latest technologies and manpower to operate in life-threatening situations.

The scenario is no different in the ‘newer’ cities of Noida and Gurgaon where plush malls and posh residential towers have mushroomed but no attention had been given to adequately equip the fire departments.

The Delhi Fire Services (DFS) is equipped with just five skylifts -- one is out of order. These four skylifts, of which two are stationed in Connaught Place, are meant to serve the entire city. One of these skylifts can reach 70 metres and the other four 40 metres.

“Our fighting happens from inside, not outside. We focus on sending our men inside the buildings. New buildings are growing taller by the day. We cannot keep procuring taller skylifts each time,” says GC Mishra, DFS Director.

In Delhi, there are around 3,000 buildings taller than 15 metres. “These buildings are those which have come up in authorised areas after due permissions. They have the fire clearances and it is not a trouble to fight a blaze there,” says Mishra.

However, the trouble starts when even the authorised multi-storeyed buildings change design to add more compartments. “In those circumstances, the fire fighters find it difficult to gain access to the building from alternative entry points or make their way inside,” says Atul Garg, Chief Fire Officer, DFS.

Gurgaon remains vulnerable

In Gurgaon, which boasts of countless skyscrapers, little has changed even 13 years after a massive blaze in a multi-storey building in DLF Cyber City – just days before a multinational company was to move into this state-of-the-art building.

Back then, the city lacked fire fighting infrastructure and it sought help from Delhi Fire Services which had to rush a hydraulic ladder (skylift) and fire tenders to douse the flames. Water sprayed by the Haryana fire service tenders had failed to reach even the 9th floor (30 metres) of the building.

Even today, the government is largely dependent on the private sector, which has set up its own fire stations, deployed men and sourced the required infrastructure. However, what has changed in this city since Cyber Green fire incident is that the number of high-rises has crossed 1100, many of which are as high as 195 metres (60 floors).

The hydraulic platforms of Haryana Fire Service can reach only the 14th floor (40 metres) of a high-rise. Plans to acquire a 100-metre snorkel remains in papers only.

Equipment and personnel from the fire departments of Air Force, DLF Ltd, Honda Motorcycles & Scooters and Maruti Suzuki are often borrowed during an emergency.

The DLF fire station -- NCR’s first private fire station has two hydraulic platforms that can reach up to 90 metres.

SK Dheri, former chief of Delhi Fire Services, who also headed DLF Fire Services, said besides firefighting equipment, the response time is a key issue. “Only a select fire stations spread across the city don’t ensure timely help. Poor traffic management also adds to the problem,” he said.

Living dangerously in Noida

Equipped with only one 42-metre-high hydraulic platform that can reach only up to 14 storeys, the fire department in Gautam Budh Nagar can only pray that fire incidents do not occur in nearly 950 high-rise buildings that have 20 to 25 floors.

According to officials, there are nearly 2,000 high-rises in Noida, including the Supernova in Sector 94 with 80 storeys and a height of 300 metres.

“As per our records, of the total 2,000 buildings nearly 950 have 20 to 25 storeys where we cannot reach with our hydraulic platform. Even the 42 metre platform cannot extinguish fire on the 14th floor as it lets firemen reach only two to three floors, that too depending on the velocity of air,” said Gautam Budh Nagar chief fire officer, Arun Singh.

Singh said the department has to rely on the fire safety systems installed in the buildings.

Officials said even though they may get new equipment, the state government has not increased the manpower. Gautam Budh Nagar has 160 firemen against the required strength of 350.

On a prayer in Ghaziabad

The situation is even worse in neighbouring Ghaziabad where fire department does not have even a 42-metre hydraulic platform. The city has nearly 300 residential and commercial high-rises.

The development authority has given permissions for construction of buildings up to 22-storey high. However, the fire officials could reach only up to six storeys with their current equipments.

“We have to borrow a hydraulic platform from Noida. We also face shortage of staff and vehicles,” said Akshay Ranjan Sharma, chief fire officer.

Officials also pointed out that in nearly 60-70% high-rises fire fighting equipment are not maintained regularly.

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