Firefighters lack training on chemical fires

Garment products strewn here and there at the BM Container Depot in Sitakunda after the explosion. The photo was taken on 6 May 2022Sowrav Das

iNone of the firefighters who rushed to BM Container Depot in Sitakunda, Chattogram, from two adjacent fire stations had any training on extinguishing chemical fires. There are 150 firefighters in Bangladesh who are trained abroad to douse chemical fires. They have special equipment and suits.

There were 11 such trained firefighters in Agrabad, Chattogram, but none were in Sitakunda industrial area or at Kumira Fire Station, the nearby fire station. This is what led to so many deaths and injuries of firefighters, said two high officials at Fire Service and Civil Defence headquarters.

They said there is a special fire service unit ‘hazmat’ trained from abroad to douse chemical fires. They work with special chemical protection suits in cases of such fire. The members of this team are stationed at the headquarters and divisional cities. As per the procedure, the firefighters begin extinguishing the blaze if that’s a normal fire. In the case of a chemical fire, they would inform the hazmat unit.

The officials said in Sitakunda the reverse happened. Firefighters from the two nearest stations rushed to the spot and began working to douse the blaze thinking it was a normal fire. Hazmat team members went there after seeing media reports on the explosion.

Firefighters are at work to douse the blaze
Prothom Alo

The officials, however, alleged the local firefighters, without informing the hazmat team in Agrabad, began dousing the blaze considering it a normal fire as they were not informed about chemical substances at the depot. The explosion took place due to the wrong approach in extinguishing the blaze. This led to the highest number of deaths of firefighters in a single fire incident.

Another official, wishing not to be named, told Prothom Alo that a very few firefighters have the training required to douse chemical fire. That’s why hazmat team members are kept at headquarters and divisional cities. But in cases of such fire, accidents took place by the time the team members reach the spot.

The official further said the loss and number of casualties could be lessened if such trained people can be kept at fire stations near the factories.

Firefighters with hazmat suit are at work to douse the blaze
Prothom Alo

A total of 43 people died in a fire and explosion at BM Container Depot in Sitakunda, Chattogram, on Saturday night, said the authorities.

Speaking to Prothom Alo, Fire Service and Civil Defence directorate assistant director (training) Monir Hossain said, “We had sent 150 firefighters to Singapore, Malaysia and Australia for training to douse chemical fire. They know how to take action by identifying chemicals in case of such fire.”

“Our fighters would not go so near the fire if we knew that was a chemical fire,” he added.

He further said not all types of fire can be doused in the same method. The way you need to switch off the main switch in case an electric fire, in the same way you need to use water first to keep chemical fire under control. In this case the water is sprayed like watering a sapling so that it does not spread much. At the same time, if possible, you need to separate the chemical substances from all other things. Then the fire does not spread.

* The report, originally published in the print and online editions of Prothom Alo, has been rewritten by Shameem Reza