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     Volume 8 Issue 64 | April 3, 2009 |

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A Blazing Problem

Elita Karim
After the Basundhara Complex shock, the need for better fire-fighting measures has come to the limelight. Star File Photo

Last month, the devastating blaze that reduced the upper levels of Basundhara City Shopping Complex to a mere skeleton, did much more than scare everyone out of their wits. The blazing fire, have opened up the eyes of several skyscraper owners, tenants living on top floors and employees with a nice view of the city from their 20-storey office buildings.

After the Basundhara Complex shock, the need for better fire-fighting measures has come to the limelight. With this in mind, the following week, the Rajshashi Secretariat Building organised a fire drill in their 20-storey building. As the sirens rang loud into the air and fake smoke (created with the help of mosquito repellent medicines) clouded the sky, the ever-ready firemen had already begun their rescue efforts. A fire truck appeared with a ladder, which was helping the 'victims' to climb down to safety. In less than an hour, the 'fire' was doused and the employees were rescued.

It leaves one to wonder, however, as to what would have happened in a real-fire scenario. It would obviously have taken the Fire Service quite a while to reach the fumes, considering the jam-packed roads. A 20-storey building would be expected to have a proper fire escape, which would at least bring the occupants of the building to safety, instead of waiting for the fire truck with the ladder. “A high-rise cannot be built without a proper fire escape plan in its initial stages of planning,” explains the Director General of Fire Service and Civil Defence Abu Nayeem Md Shahidullah. “The secretariat building has alternative staircases and if one is closed down during a fire, the other can automatically be used to bring people down to safety. This drill was, however, done to figure out how long it would take the Fire Service to douse the fire and for the employees to come out of danger. Rescuing important government and official documents was also another factor behind the drill. If these documents are destroyed, it would be considered a violation.”

For fire fighters and rescue workers, it must have been a moment of deja vu while trying to douse the fire in the very recent Mirpur 1 incident, where a shopping complex was burnt down.

Shahidullah further adds that both the government and private sectors are now concerned about fire safety and are checking in with the Fire Service Department to cross check their fire safety / precautionary measures. “We provide three services from the Fire Service,” he says, “One would be to conduct a survey and check the items required for fire safety. The second service is offering training to fire fighting officials inside the building and the third is conducting fire drills with the occupants of the building.” While these services are offered for free to government organisations, the Fire Service Department charges a fee for the private sector.

Nousheen Khan, a 42-year-old businesswoman has postponed her plans to move to a plush apartment in Gulshan from her Moghbazaar residence. Both Nousheen and her husband, parents of three children, are now discussing last minute changes with their real-estate agent. “This apartment building is a six-storey building,” says Nousheen. “And it does not have a fire escape! When I raised this question, our agent pointed out a small locked doorway in our balcony, which can be used as an emergency exit. However, this door is too small to let us out and is not an appropriate fire escape plan.” As Nousheen researches and asks around further, none of the apartment builders, even the well-known ones, have proper fire escape plans in their initial design plans.

Fire safety planning actually begins at the design stage. Architect Dr Nizamuddin Ahmed says that a typical fire pattern involves initiation, enlargement, rise of smoke, heat and fire due to flue effect (going upwards), leading to structural failure over time and if sufficient combustibles are available. According to a report written by him on fire safety designs, fire hazard has multiplied in Bangladesh because of taller buildings, air-conditioned enclosed space, increased use of electro-mechanical equipment, increased use of flammable finish materials and designers not addressing new hazard dimension. He says that people will die in a fire incident if the architect or the building owner does not provide a means of escape to a place of safety. Since smoke kills, people will die in a smoke incident.

Firemen try to douse the flames that gutted 10 shops and nine dwellings at Cheragi Pahar intersection in Chittagong. Star File Photo

Efforts must be made therefore, to increase the number of fire drill practices, not only to keep a check on the efficiency of our fire-fighters but also to practice precautionary measures which are to be managed by the occupants of the building themselves. Abu Nayeem Md Shahidullah says that during a drill, the escaping occupants must also try to use the fire extinguishers and protect themselves as much as possible. Expiry dates of fire extinguishers must be checked regularly and staff or occupants of the building have to be trained in using these devices.

The drills may also help in creating an environment of self-restraint amongst people. For fire fighters and rescue workers, it must have been a moment of deja vu while trying to douse the fire in the very recent Mirpur 1 incident, where a shopping complex was burnt down. Hundreds of people had to be moved aside, sometimes even forcibly pushed aside for the fire officials to do their job.

It is appalling that despite innumerable incidents of fire, with large number of casualties in many of them, basic facilities such as proper fire exits and practices such as proper training through drills are still non-existent in many buildings. This is unacceptable and the state should make be extremely strict about such violations of law.


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