Taming the flames: How to ensure fire safety at home, workplaces
When you think of posh apartment buildings in Gulshan, Banani or Baridhara, you expect them to be well-designed and equipped with proper safety measures. But as the massive fire in a residential building in Gulshan on 20 February showed, when it comes to fire safety, there is a serious lack of awareness and preparation at every level in Bangladesh.
I grew up in Old Dhaka, where the organic development of dwellings, and later the exploitation of those as storage of flammable chemicals, has left the entire area extremely susceptible to dangerous fires. Starting from distant family and house-helps losing their homes to fires, to tragedies like the Nimtoli fire incident in 2010 and the Chawk Bazar inferno at Churihatta in 2019, fires carry a sense of personal trauma for me. I was stuck in traffic just across from Wahid Mansion — the building which initially caught fire during the Chawk Bazar incident — and took the wise decision to walk home, which saved me that day.
But are we always that lucky?
In regular residential buildings, people hardly know about safety measures. There is no awareness and that lack of knowledge only makes the situation worse when a fire does break out. People panic and lose all hope of being rescued alive, and the situation quickly spirals into chaos.
Most buildings in Bangladesh do not have fire escapes and most apartments lack fire exits. Fire alarms, sprinklers or extinguishers mostly serve decorative purposes in the buildings that do carry them. Wiring in most buildings is done haphazardly, flammable materials are used in construction and decoration without awareness of their risks, while a densely populated city leaves firefighters little room to manoeuvre during fire breakouts.
According to the Bangladesh National Building Code (BNBC), there are rules and regulations to ensure fire safety, but they are mostly ignored. BNBC has a section with elaborate guidelines for the measurements of the fire stair, its placements and the distance between each. The code also has specifications about the fire safety equipment and installations. The construction layout plan also needs to have clearance for fire safety from the Department of Fire and Civil Defence.
"The building that caught fire in Gulshan only had a NOC from the Fire Safety Department taken in 2010. There was no proposal for the fire safety layout plans which had been cleared by the department," said Brigadier General Main Uddin, Director General of the Department of Fire and Civil Defense, adding that the building carried flaws that violated BNBC codes.
"I was there for four hours to conduct the evacuation but the difficulties were apparent. We could save people from the front of the building, but when we tried to evacuate them from the sides, the aerial apparatus could hardly reach them. There was little space for the apparatus to turn around and work," he said, adding that the fire escape and the regular stairs were side by side, which confused people.
So, what can be done to prevent our homes, offices and factories from turning into fire pits? And if a fire does break out, what can we do to tame the flames?
Every building needs to have a fire alarm, smoke and heat detection system, sprinklers, and extinguishers.
The installation of smoke detection systems is vital. A fire's initial few minutes are extremely important for controlling it. International building rules require automatic fire alarm systems, which includes smoke and heat detectors, as obligatory components.
The purpose of fire sprinklers and other fire extinguishing devices are to put out or control the fire. Typically, smoke control systems are built to stop the spread of smoke, keeping exit routes usable for a predetermined amount of time.
Skyscrapers that are more difficult to enter and escape must have automated sprinkler systems installed. If there is no room for smoke suppression, it is exceedingly difficult to put out a fire in a building over the 20th level, since it is out of range of the fire brigade's truck.
The fire alarm notifies emergency responders from where the alert is coming, and it also sends a warning to the building's residents.
Residents need to be trained on how to handle a situation in case of fire. The building should also be evaluated for fire safety.
Frequent fire drills should be conducted.
According to Brigadier General Uddin, local fire departments offer free basic fire safety training seminars to acquaint residents with emergency evacuation procedures.
You also have to have your building evaluated by the local fire departments for a small fee, Uddin added.
Potential death traps are best evaluated by experts, which include the storage of dangerous or combustible goods, outdated and unstable structures, inadequate escape routes, and power overloads.
Tenants must also make sure that staircases, stairwells, and hallways are well-maintained, ventilated, and clear of obstructions, and the path to exit doors must be clear. People of the building should know where the exits are. Accessing exits is crucial since you need to make sure that the residents can get out of the building. Fewer exits have the potential to cause confusion and even take lives in threatening situations.
Any flammable material or object should be properly stored. All the fire extinguishers or related equipment present within the building should be regularly inspected. And the ventilation systems of enclosed areas and kitchens should be well maintained.
And in the situation a fire does break out, the first thing you need to do is dial 999. It's crucial to avoid panicking and to keep away from flames and gases.
Some decorative pieces and materials might add to a home's aesthetic value, but are fire hazards.
Interior designing culture has grown dramatically since the last decade. But people are not very aware or concerned about the consequences of certain luxuries.
"In recent times, in areas like Dhanmodi and Gulshan, buildings are initially designed with proper precautionary measures, but they too are catching fires every now and then. And it is spreading drastically within a short amount of time. This is because of the materials used in interior designing. They are mostly flammable; especially cladding materials made of PVC and similar boards. Owners are not warned about any hazards," explained Mamnoon Murshed Chowdhury, architect and academic.
Heating, Ventilation, and Air conditioning (HVAC)
If you cut corners in an attempt to cut down costs, it might prove to be disastrous if a fire breaks out.
The Gulshan residence had central air conditioning. When the fire broke out, it spread out through the ducts. There are pre-installed chemicals available that can be used to prevent such an occurrence, but most clients ignore these precautions to reduce costs. According to the Fire Department DG Uddin, the gas supply networks, electrical supply networks, and other electro-mechanical systems were all in the same shaft, which increased the risk of fire spreading even more.
What should be done with the new and old buildings?
There are proper guidelines present in the BNBC which must be followed by the architects and engineers while designing the layout of any building. The new buildings should have an adequate amount of free spaces around the building for proper accessibility.
The maximum distance a person must go to access a fire exit is specified by the BNBC as well. High-rise buildings must include open spaces, especially terraces, where people may gather securely when urged to exit the building gradually. The BNBC 2005, a comprehensive collection of regulations for designing, maintaining, and using buildings of all sorts, specifies the quantity, size, and positioning of exits.
And for the existing buildings which are not well equipped with fire safety measures, they can take steps like having a fire extinguisher within the living area. Install a fire hydrant within the building premises if possible. The occupants should be careful about handling fire.
What constitutes fire safety?
The truth is that we keep finding out that these tragedies occur because people fail to make the proper decisions before the arrival of the fire department and other first responders.
The tragedies associated with industries have been minimised in recent years, primarily due to the pressures from western buyers. This was achieved by audits from companies like ACCORD and ALLIANCE. Regular drills are conducted to help workers stay prepared and trained on how to deal with such adverse situations.
Awareness and training play a big role. But other infrastructural precautions cannot be ignored to prevent a tragedy from taking place.
fire safety / Fire accidentRehnuma Tasnim SheefaWhen you think of posh apartment buildings in Gulshan, Banani or Baridhara, you expect them to be well-designed and equipped with proper safety measures. But as the massive fire in a residential building in Gulshan on 20 February showed, when it comes to fire safety, there is a serious lack of awareness and preparation at every level in Bangladesh. But are we always that lucky?InstallationsMaintenanceMaterialsHeating, Ventilation, and Air conditioning (HVAC)What should be done with the new and old buildings?What constitutes fire safety?