KARACHI, June 24: The KFC arson case, in which six people lost their lives, had an element of mob violence in it, but it has nevertheless re-focussed attention on fire safety measures in commercial and residential buildings in the city.
It appears that almost all business centres, apartment blocks and food establishments are ill-equipped to effectively deal with a fire.
According to the existing regulations, any building 12.8 meters or high should be equipped with a fire alarm system, smoke detectors, sprinklers and fire extinguishers. The Karachi Town Planning and Building Regulations 2002 say that the material used in the construction of a building should be fire resistant.
In addition, the Sindh Local Government Ordinance 2002 has a provision under which the Karachi Building and Control Authority can cancel a building plan which does not envisage fire exits and other fire safety measures, according to the chief fire officer (CFO) of the city government, Kazim Ali.
But a survey following the outbreak of a fire in a residential complex in April in which eight members of a family had lost their lives revealed the ineffectiveness of the KBCA regulations. The probe found that the approved construction plan of the apartment blocks was different from what was eventually built. When enraged mobs had set fire to the Business Recorder building in May 2000 following the assassination of Maulana Yousuf Ludhianvi, many people were trapped in the building. That incident had also exposed the lack of fire safety measures, and the stranded staff had to jump across to a neighbouring building to save themselves.
Safety standards, especially with reference to fire prevention, have never been a priority for builders who look for maximizing profits by cutting cost. Investing in fire safety measures means a higher cost.
Multinational fast food chains claim they practise a fire prevention culture and install smoke detectors and sprinklers, which are a pre-requisite in the West. However, in some outlets in the city these precautions have been found missing, a fire official said.
The CFO said that foreign fast food chains had relatively good fire safety measures compared to local eating houses.
A battery of eating establishments has opened up on the Zamzama Boulevard, DHA, and most of the over 20 restaurants there do not appear to have fire exits. “Basically they start with a shop on the ground floor and extend the premises by taking the mezzanine floor. With such space constraints, these eating houses can hardly have any provision for fire exits,” says Clifton TPO Imran Shaukat.
Eating places located in basements present special problems. If a fire breaks out, the situation could be serious, the TPO remarked.
“The fire exit is a door that is not to be used in normal times. Such dedicated exits do not exist in any of the food outlets in the city”, Mr Shaukat asserted.
Fire extinguishers are available at most public places, but it is often forgotten that they need to be periodically refilled. In most government offices, the fire extinguishers have expired, and in case of an emergency, they would prove invalid, said a senior fire officer. Moreover, people need to be trained in the use of fire extinguishers.
“And, God forbid, if a major fire breaks out in the old city area of Jodia Bazar, Kharadar, it would be a mind-boggling task to control it as fire tenders cannot enter the narrow streets of that area.
Apartment buildings have sprung up in such a manner that it is difficult for even a small fire vehicle to make its way into a densely populated area”, said CFO Kazim Ali. In such situations, the fire department urges the installation of fire hydrants, but it says its proposals are seldom taken seriously by the government. It is only when a major tragedy occurs that everyone sits up.
A fire department official recalled that it had taken three to four days to totally control the fire that had broken out in the plastic market in Boulton Market in the mid-90s. Chemicals, plastic and flammable liquids are stored in hundreds of warehouses in Jodia Bazar and Boulton Market.
The old city has timber based construction which is prone to fire. Before partition, the old town area had a hydrant system. In the West Wharf area, the KPT still has the old hydrant system which uses sea water, the CFO said.
The fire department has instructions not to go into mob situations without a police escort. However, police protection is hard to come by during incidents of violence. “It often happens that the police have to run to save their own lives, leaving us to face the mob,” the CFO said, adding that often firemen take risks and jump into situations where other law-enforcement agencies are reluctant to go. Two firemen have died and over two dozen wounded in mob violence in the city during the last 10 years.
In addition, two fire tenders have been destroyed and several have suffered serious damage during the same period. At present the fire department has only 18 fire tenders in working condition.
Had the personnel of the law-enforcement agencies acted on time to quell the violence that broke out following the suicide bombing at Masjid Madinatul Ilm on May 30, the tragic loss of life and damage to the property could have been averted, one resident of the area said.
“A head count is most essential in event of any fire incident. In the KFC May 30 incident, even at 2am, when the firemen were looking for bodies inside the restaurant no one had a clear idea about the total number of people accounted for and missing,” recalled deputy chief fire officer Naeem Yousaf.
The mob near the NIPA Chowrangi had allowed the fire tender to rescue the stranded people from an apartment building near the burning restaurant. They had also allowed putting out the fire in some shops. However when the firemen tried to put out the fire at the restaurant, the mob attacked the fire tender. As a result three firemen were injured. Subsequently the fire tender withdrew from the troubled spot.
“If the people in the mob had known about the presence of people inside the burning restaurant, they might have allowed us to do our job, because they allowed us to rescue the stranded people in the neighbouring apartment building,” the CFO remarked.
There is a provision in the Karachi Building Regulations - 2002 about fire control measures. But it has been observed that the existing rules are not implemented on the ground, a senior fire officer said.
The April 29 fire in a Gulshan apartment was caused by an electrical short circuit. The fourth floor apartment did not have any emergency exit. Even the balcony was enclosed with an iron grill, shutting out the possibility of escaping that way. The main entrance as approved by the KBCA should have been about 21 feet which turned out to be only 10 feet when an inspection was carried out by a committee constituted to inquire into the incident.
The committee suggested that the KBCA should enforce the Karachi Building and Town Planning Regulations 2002 with the Karachi Building Fire Control Measures 2005 in letter and spirit.
Shifting the share of responsibility from his department, the Controller of the Karachi Building Control Authority, Brig A.S. Nasir, said that ensuring fire exits in a structure was the responsibility of the architect. “We, as a regulatory body inspect a site after its completion,” he said, and added that issuing of licences to eating establishments was the responsibility of the CDGK.