SPECIAL FEATURE







Fire: How safe are our schools
— A Tribune survey

AS many as 90 children were burnt alive when fire engulfed Lord Krishna Higher Secondary School at Kumbakonam in Tamil Nadu on Saturday morning. The fire and the death of so many children for no fault of theirs sent shock-waves throughout the country. Parents in most states are worried whether the authorities of the schools where their children study have installed any fire safety equipment and trained their staff to tackle an emergency to ensure that their wards do not suffer the fate the Kumbakonam children have met. During the last three days, The Tribune reporters in Chandigarh, Punjab, Haryana and Himachal Pradesh have visited dozens of schools to check whether they have taken any fire safety measures. The first report concerns schools in Chandigarh, Mohali and Panchkula. This will be followed later this week by reports on the state of fire safety in schools across Punjab, Haryana and Himachal Pradesh. We regret to inform our readers that initial reports reaching us make a dismal reading. Clearly, state governments, local bodies and school authorities need to wake up and do something to ensure that schools are safe for children.

H.K. Dua, Editor-in-Chief

Govt, private schools lack fire fighting gadgets
Chandigarh/Panchkula/ Mohali, July 20
It often takes a tragedy to awaken to the flaws in the system. The fire in a school in Kumbakonam that claimed 90 lives led us to the schools in Chandigarh, Panchkula and Mohali.

Even where equipment exist, staff not trained
Chandigarh, July 20
We found that most of the government and private schools lacked fire fighting equipment. Ironically, those who had invested in installing equipment like fire extinguishers and water hydrants did not have trained staff to use them.

Safety norms are seldom checked
Panchkula, July 20
The township boasts of some of the best schools in the region in terms of infrastructure. However, most of the schools do not prescribe to fire safety measures. Though the public schools have installed fire extinguishers in the school, none of the government schools in the township have any provision for fire safety.

Fire drill: What is that?
School children wait for the bell to go inside a school in Shahi Majra, Mohali.Mohali, July 20
While no government school teacher in Mohali has even heard of a firefighting system in schools, private schools affiliated to the Punjab School Education Board (PSEB) had some firefighting equipment installed during the affiliation process. Similarly, schools affiliated to the Central Board of Secondary Education (CBSE) had fire safety equipment in place thanks to a mandatory affiliation norm.

School children wait for the bell to go inside a school in Shahi Majra, Mohali. 
— A Tribune photograph

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Govt, private schools lack fire fighting gadgets

Chandigarh/Panchkula/Mohali, July 20
It often takes a tragedy to awaken to the flaws in the system. The fire in a school in Kumbakonam that claimed 90 lives led us to the schools in Chandigarh, Panchkula and Mohali.

The visit was an eye opener as we realised that it is a tragedy waiting to happen. None of the schools is up to the mark with regards to fire safety measures. In the name of fire fighting equipment, all that the schools (restricted mainly to public schools) have are fire extinguishers, and in certain cases sand buckets. None of the schools have yard hydrant, sprinkler system or smoke detectors.

There have hardly been any fire drills in schools, not even during the Fire Safety Week celebrations, which means only visits to the Fire Station or a painting competition. Neither teachers nor students are trained to handle the fire extinguishers. Officials of the Fire Department have rarely ever visited the schools, except for on occasions when the school had sought ‘‘No Objection Certificate’’ from the Fire Department.

In government schools of Panchkula and Mohali, fire safety measures and fire fighting equipment are unheard of. In Chandigarh, though some of the government schools have installed fire extinguishers, no one has checked the equipment. In certain cases the chemical based fire extinguishers has outlived its age. 
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Even where equipment exist, staff not trained
Rajmeet Singh
Tribune News Service

Chandigarh, July 20
We found that most of the government and private schools lacked fire fighting equipment. Ironically, those who had invested in installing equipment like fire extinguishers and water hydrants did not have trained staff to use them.

The only encouraging element in the findings was that a handful of private schools in Chandigarh were, indeed, interested in chalking out plans to save students from a possible blaze. Conducting drills using the identified exit points was not part of a regular feature at any of the schools.

Mr P.I.Sabu, Regional Officer of the Central Board of Secondary Education (CBSE), said: ‘‘As per the affiliation bylaws the schools have to obtain a NOC from the civic body and the Fire Department". But it was strange to find that many of the CBSE affiliated schools have not bothered to adhere to the guidelines.

Principals of most of the governments schools expressed their helplessness in installing the equipment due to shortage of funds. At a Government High School in Sector 26, sand had been stored in sand buckets in the name of fire control.

‘‘We are asked to get the equipment installed out of the Parent Teachers Association (PTA) funds. Some schools with enough collection from the PTA funds can only afford to procure the equipment’’, confessed the principal of a Government Model Senior Secondary School. When confronted with the level of preparedness, the staff at Government Girls Model Senior Secondary School, Sector 8, admitted that they had not been trained to evacuate children in case of a blaze.

Most of the school principals confronted on the issue evaded a reply, saying that their building were quite "airy" and there were little chance of fire. On further probing, they confessed that the infrastructure should be in place but the funds and the training had to come from the Education Department. At Government Model Senior Secondary School, Sector 23, there were four fire extinguishers and water storage facility but no pipes to carry the water. None of the members of the school was trained to handle the evacuation exercise. Similarly, there was hardly any facility in the name of fire control at Government Model Senior Secondary School, Sector 19.

A similar situation existed at Government Model Senior Secondary School, Sector 16. There were fire extingishers, sand buckets and water hydrant but no one trained to use them. No contingency plan had ever been made in consultation with the Fire Department. An official at CL DAV Centenary Public School, Sector 8, told The Tribune that no specific firefighting equipment had been installed. She said she hardly remembered when officials from the Fire Department visited the school to train the staff.

Fire fighting equipment was found in place at Mount Carmel Convent School, Sector 47. ‘‘Officials from the Fire Department were called to train our staff and the equipment were installed on their advice", said Mr Charles Samuel, Principal of the school. Students of Classes IX and X have been trained to deal with any situation arising out of a blaze.

At Bhavan Vidyalaya, Sector 27, the school authorities were busy preparing a contingency plan in case of a fire. The teachers and school captains were being trained in evacuation exercise. The infrastructure existed but the staff lacked training.

‘‘The students have been involved in preparing the evacuation plans. We will be calling army or local fire officials to train our staff and private security personnel’’.

At DAV Public School, Sector 15, fire extinguishers and sand buckets existed. But the school staff has not been trained to handle the situation arising out of a blaze.

When The Tribune was going around the school, the administration and the Fire Department — stung by constant media criticism — were visiting all the schools to find out the shortcomings. The report on the state of facilities would be ready in a week, said the Chief Fire Officer, Mr G.S.Bajwa. 
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Safety norms are seldom checked
Ruchika M. Khanna
Tribune News Service

Panchkula, July 20
The township boasts of some of the best schools in the region in terms of infrastructure. However, most of the schools do not prescribe to fire safety measures. Though the public schools have installed fire extinguishers in the school, none of the government schools in the township have any provision for fire safety.

School authorities say Fire Department officials have almost never visited the schools to check for adherence to fire safety norms. Mr Bharat B. Gupta, Principal of DC Model School, Sector 7, says the school had called the fire officer three months ago to check the school building for fire safety measures and issue them a No Objection Certificate (NOC). ‘‘The officer had checked all 28 fire extinguishers, but made no recommendations for installing other fire safety equipment,’’ he says.

Mr Gupta adds that the school has itself trained its teachers to use fire extinguishers, though fire drills have never been organised nor have the students been taught how to react in case of a fire. ‘‘But we have trained them for disaster management,’’ he says.

However, other schools authorities in the township say they do not even remember the last time Fire Department officials had paid a visit to the schools. Officials in Jainendra Public School, Sector 1, say they have never been visited by Fire Department officials. Says the Principal, Mrs Sudha Babbar: ‘‘We have installed fire extinguishers and vatrizers in the mess and in the hostel premises. We had trained the students for quick eviction as part of the Disaster Management Programme three years ago after the earthquake in Gujarat.’’

The Principal of Hansraj Public School, Sector 6, Mr Vijay Kumar, says that ever since he took over in November last year no official from the Fire Department has ever checked the premises. ‘‘We have installed fire extinguishers on all floors, in the laboratories, the mess, canteen and kitchen of the hostel, and check these regularly for the valid time period." However, the school has no yard hydrant, smoke detectors or sprinkler system. The school authorities say that they have tubewells and underground tanks in the school, and in case of any eventuality their would be sufficient availability of water.

The less said the better about the government schools in the township. None of the government schools has any fire extinguisher or yard hydrant. A Principal of a Government High School, on condition of anonymity, said that in her 16 years of service she had not found a single government school equipped for fire fighting. ‘‘The school buildings are airy and built with an approved plan. But we have limited resources at our disposal, and we cannot afford to buy fire fighting equipment,’’ she says.

None of the schools running from residential premises have any fire safety equipment. Some of the schools running from Housing Board houses in Sectors 19, 10 and 15 have narrow staircases leading to the class rooms, and only one person can pass by at a time. There are no fire exits and in case of a fire, there is no way that the persons in the school can be evacuated.

Fire officials say they will now launch a concerted drive to check the fire fighting facility in all schools. 
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Fire drill: What is that?
Chitleen K Sethi
Tribune News Service

Mohali, July 20
While no government school teacher in Mohali has even heard of a firefighting system in schools, private schools affiliated to the Punjab School Education Board (PSEB) had some firefighting equipment installed during the affiliation process. Similarly, schools affiliated to the Central Board of Secondary Education (CBSE) had fire safety equipment in place thanks to a mandatory affiliation norm.

Even in schools where there is some arrangement to fight fire, none of the staff members knew how to operate these. The students were the most ignorant since no one had ever told them how to operate these. Not a single school that The Tribune team checked in Mohali had ever undertaken a fire drill.

If the situation in government and private affiliated schools is grim, worse, however, is the condition of schools that are running in residential premises. Here hundreds of students are crammed into small rooms with small connecting corridors. In majority of the schools there are single entry doors or gates with no fire exits.

‘‘Larger schools have to follow certain guidelines laid down by the Education Department of the state and the affiliating boards. But schools running in residential premises have no accountability to anyone. Its startling but true that any person in Punjab who wants to open a school till Class VIII does not need any permission from any one,’’ said Mrs Veena Dada, in charge of affiliation in the Punjab School Education Board here.

While the local Central Board of Secondary Education chief, Mr P.I. Saboo, proudly pointed out that fire safety certificate was a must for CBSE affiliation schools, a CBSE school principal in Mohali revealed on condition of anonymity that such certificates were available for Rs 500 from any of the private fire management companies. ‘‘But there is a physical check of the firefighting equipment affixed in the school’’ said Mr Saboo.

In the schools where the management had affixed firefighting equipment with the help of fire extinguisher manufacturing companies, there is negligible maintenance of these. ‘‘We conduct maintenance checks only once in five years,’’ said Mr Saboo. Thus while CBSE and PSEB schools ensure that their schools have some wherewithal in the name of fire safety equipment, there is no policy to ensure that the schools comply with these norms even after the affiliation process is completed.

The teaching staff of all the schools visited by The Tribune team, including Sant Isher Singh Public School Sector, 70 and Phase VII, Sanjay Public School, Sector 70, Renz Step Public School, Shahi Majra, Saupins School, Sector 70, admitted they had no idea what to do in case of a fire. ‘‘We have one peon trained in fire fighting. He knows how to use these extinguishers,’’ pointed out the staff member in charge in Sant Isher Singh Public School, Phase VII. ‘‘We have no one who is trained to douse a fire in the school.’’ admitted the Principal of Sanjay Public School, Mrs R Sethi.

‘‘We have a complete course in Class VIII on disaster management as part of which we will be training some teachers to conduct mock fire and earthquake drills with the students. That should take care of the problem in the future,’’ said Mrs Tiwana, Principal, Saint Soldiers School, Phase VII, adding that they had disaster management drills with students and it took exactly seven minutes to empty the whole school.

But for the students, ignorance seems to be bliss. No student had received any instruction from anyone about fire safety. ‘‘No I have no idea what to do in case my classroom catches fire. I guess I will run outside,’’ said Preeti, a Class VI student of Sant Isher Singh Public School, here.
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87 school kids burnt to death in TN
Kumbakonam, July 16
At least 87 children were killed in a devastating fire in a school today in this small Tamil Nadu town, 400 km from Chennai, while 32 admitted to hospital with severe burn injuries.

TN tragedy toll 90; five held
Kumbakonam, July 17
While the death toll in Friday’s devastating fire at the local school here rose to 90, Congress MP Rahul Gandhi visited this small town in Tamil Nadu to express emotional support to the families of the victims.

Most schools in India have no fire safety measures. The Tamil Nadu school fire tragedy in which 90 children have been burnt alive illustrates gross failure on the part of society and the school authorities to ensure safety of children. We are publishing the following article by Pushpa Girimaji, who writes a regular column on consumer affairs — Editor-in-Chief

Time for all schools to wake up
T
here is dire need for schools to be safety conscious, particularly because the lives of young children are involved. The Kumbakonam school tragedy on Friday is a classic example of what such lack of safety consciousness can do.

Nation page:
Rs 1-cr package for fire victims’ kin
Kumbakonam, July 18
Congress President Sonia Gandhi today announced a package of Rs 1 crore from the Prime Minister’s Relief Fund for the families of the victims of the Friday’s fire mishap in which 90 schoolchildren died and several others were injured. 

Editorials: Children aren’t for burning
Teachers’ betrayalTop

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