A fire safety check can be a lifesaver 

It's like switching on a rewind button — after every avoidable fire tragedy, you see the same scenario. A fixed sum is doled out to the victims or their families as compensation, the forgotten rulebook on fire safety is dusted and brought out, appropriate noises made about stringent enforcement and the administration’s commitment to safety. And as soon as the media attention moves away, the commitment to fire safety also wanes and the rulebook goes back to its corner, only to be taken out after another tragedy.

The major fire that engulfed a community hall in East Delhi last fortnight, taking a heavy toll, 16 dead and over 45 injured, is a typical example. The cause, as in most such cases, was an electrical short-circuit in the temporary power connection drawn by the contractor, who pitched the tent outside the hall. And as usual, there were no fire extinguishers and worse, no fire exit. The contractor has to take the blame for his gross negligence here. But what about the role of the Municipal Council of Delhi (MCD) that owns the community hall — how come there were not even fire extinguishers in the hall? The civic authority’s callous negligence, I would say, is of an even higher magnitude.

Considering that people hire these halls for marriages and such ceremonies where a large number of people congregate, it is shocking that the MCD has woken up to the necessity for fire-fighting equipment in its 225 community halls after a major tragedy. But then, that’s typical of all civic administrations in the country. Just two months ago, a 17-year old girl was killed and 10 people were injured when a privately-owned building used as a marriage hall collapsed in the outskirts of Bangalore, following explosions caused by two gas cylinders.  Investigations revealed another shocking fact — the basement of the marriage hall was being used to run an illegal chemical factory!

A year before that, in Kanpur, a young man was killed and 12 others were injured, when a fire caused by cooking gas leakage marred a wedding ceremony. The wedding was being held in a make-shift tent and as usual, all safety norms had been ignored. There were no fire exits or fire extinguishers.

In Bangalore, where building and renting out large premises for marriages is a lucrative business, a survey conducted by the fire safety department and the local authorities in 2010, found that 67 of the 133 marriage halls did not have proper fire-safety provisions. What is apparent in all these is the total absence of safety consciousness. Besides the civic authorities, who are supposed to ensure that all public buildings are fire-safe, even those who own and let out marriage halls have a responsibility to ensure that the buildings are safe in all respects, that they follow the minimum standards provided in Chapter 4 ( Fire and life safety) of the National Building Code of India, and have the relevant certificate from the fire department. Yet, the safety drill is followed more in its breach.

This being the marriage season, I would urge all those hiring these places to make no compromises on safety. Ask for the fire clearance certificate — that will force those who own these halls, government or private, to pay heed to safety. While the certificates will ensure that experts in fire safety have actually inspected and cleared the building, I would suggest that those who hire them also inspect the place to double-check on safety. For example, are there adequate number of fire extinguishers? Are they in good working conditions? Check the date of expiry on them.

You also need to look at the fire escape routes — does the building have only one door or are there two to serve as separate entry and exit points? Are they large enough for people to run out and easy enough to open? Is the electrical wiring of standard quality? Are there any loose, sparking, naked wires and temporary connections? Is there any flammable material in the hall? You also need to look at the location of the kitchen and where and how the cooking gas cylinders are stored. Remember, it is not a good idea to put all cylinders in one place. You also need to find out about the location of fire hydrants, the availability of water for fire fighters in case of a fire and the accessibility for fire engines to reach the fire points.