THE number of fire incidents in the country, especially in the cities, appears to be on the rise. A horrific fire in Rawalpindi a few days ago claimed the life of a bride-to-be and four other young women. The tragedy is not an isolated one. Last month, a fire damaged a garment factory in Karachi.
In the aftermath of such incidents, inquiries are ordered. But little is achieved. Homes and production and storage spaces continue to be engulfed by preventable fires. A permanent solution is needed to ensure the safety of human life.
The recent tragedy in Rawalpindi may have been the result of unsafe internal or external wiring, leaking gas or a short circuit. In commercial buildings, warehouses and factory structures, the periodic assessment of the premises, including electricity and gas supply systems, are seldom undertaken. Owners and managers want to spend as little as possible so that they can optimise their returns; workers are asked to continue in the midst of leakages, sparks in wiring or malfunctioning of worn-out conduits.
Many premises — established in commercial or residential areas — do not even bother to acquire power connections commensurate with the actual load of consumption. Similarly, layouts and placement of work stations do not guarantee safe evacuation in case a fire erupts. The absence of exits can cause people to be trapped, or lead to a stampede. Lack of ventilation causes suffocation.
Durable solutions must be worked out to prevent fire tragedies.
Mechanic shops, garment factories and embroidery and stitching outlets abound in Pakistani cities. These enterprises usually function in non-purpose-built accommodation in densely populated commercial and residential areas. With poor wiring and substandard electrical appliances, fire risks increase manifold. It is the responsibility of regulatory bodies to carry out regular checks and ensure compliance with corrective advice.
Fires in our cities should serve as a reminder to plan and implement measures to ensure home and workplace safety. A basic task is to update the data on production, retail and warehousing spaces. The federal and provincial bureaus of statistics have previously carried out several surveys that could serve as baseline studies.
As firefighting is essentially the local government’s responsibility, municipalities in cities and towns can build and update a database related to fire prevention. Building information parameters, especially related to safety, is a must. Existing building by-laws and regulations should be revisited. Most have provisions for safety that only need to be effectively applied.
After a long exercise under the supervision of experts, the government of Pakistan notified the Building Code of Pakistan — Fire Safety Provisions, 2016. It contains useful knowledge that can be readily employed by provincial and local agencies. Most building regulations enforced in our cities lay down a basic framework for fighting fires in the building design. The documents also focus on the provision of standpipes, automatic sprinkler systems, manual fire-extinguishing equipment, fire alarms, signal stations, overhead water tanks, protected shafts, fire-resistant doors, etc. Enforcement is needed.
A checklist-based evaluation of existing building stock can help identify inappropriately constructed buildings for the purpose of retrofitting. Specialised teams can be mobilised to design and facilitate these tasks. The cooperation of all stakeholders is necessary. Trade and commerce bodies, political parties, building control authorities, labour unions, technical universities and the media would have to work together.
Complex urban areas such as Karachi, Lahore and Rawalpindi have many types of buildings that require safety and security audits through the collaboration of state agencies, professionals and even ordinary people. Warehousing and basic manufacturing activities in old town quarters, squatter settlements near railway lines and high-tension wires, manufacturing units, godowns containing hazardous items, petroleum installations, etc are some of the sites where people live and work in precarious conditions. Labourers can be spotted sleeping on pushcarts, pavements, traffic islands and under flyovers, who are all at risk in case of an accidental fire.
In the public sector, national and provincial disaster management authorities must be asked to assist in revamping risky construction. Devices such as surveillance cameras, and control centres, are being set up by different layers of administration with duplicated functions. But basic inventories must also be prepared. A safety survey may be conducted in locations where fire complaints and hazards are rife. Causes of fire and combating capabilities, route planning for hazards and setting up emergency reservoirs of water could be the starting point. Fire departments must be bolstered by adding hardware, rescue equipment and free access to hydrants.
The writer is chairman, Department of Architecture & Planning, NED University, Karachi.
Published in Dawn, January 17th, 2019