Retired brigadier general Ali Ahmed Khan is the outgoing director general of Bangladesh Fire Service and Civil Defence. In a recent interview, he talked to Prothom Alo about fire safety, risks and solutions.
Prothom Alo: How weak, or strong, is the fire safety in the country? What are the reasons behind the repeated fire incidents?
Ali Ahmed Khan: Unplanned urbanisation and industrialisation increase the risk of fire. In a modern city, there should be hydrant systems from where water can be brought to quickly to extinguish fire. I heard that WASA is taking up such a project. Water sources in Dhaka are very limited. Hydrants are a component of city planning. In modern cities, high rise buildings have fire fighting teams, but not here.
Prothom Alo: The fire service said they notified FR Tower, where the recent fire took place, six times. Is that enough? Does not the fire service have any responsibility to take legal steps after sending the notification?
Ali Ahmed Khan: The problems of Dhaka have not been created in a day. Many high-rise buildings were built during the sixties, seventies and eighties. They did not follow building and fire codes. We conducted a study on Dhaka’s high-rise buildings about two and half years ago. We sent notifications to buildings where there were schools, universities, hospitals and public gathering. We assessed their fire safety plans and risks. We found 10 per cent of the buildings in good shape. After sending notifications, we took measures concerning 10 per cent more of the buildings. We have limitations in taking legal action. We have no separate prosecution and investigation cell. An inspector has to file case. But later, invariably, that inspector is made the accused one.
Prothom Alo: Is there any manpower crisis? How many buildings did you take action against during your tenure of six years?
Ali Ahmed Khan: There are 118 inspectors in the capital. There are 200 across the country. Some building owners went to the High Court after they were told to shut down their buildings. They filed writ petitions. We filed cases. I can recollect about 50 to 60 cases in Dhaka and Chattogram. The fire officials who are conducting the operation are also the ones carry out investigations and also filing cases.
Prothom Alo: Did you apprise the government about all this?
Ali Ahmed Khan: We proposed to assign three magistrates in Dhaka and two in Chattogram, things are caught up in bureaucratic tangles.
Prothom Alo: On your website, the director general in a statement claims that it a golden age in firefighting during the rule of this present government. But what are about the shortcomings?
Ali Ahmed Khan: The fire service has been modernised during the present government term. Its capacity has been raised. But there is no progress in empowering the fire service legally. We are undergoing reforms at this stage. Various reform proposals were submitted to the government. Due to our legal limitations, we could not close down the buildings which failed to comply. Letters are being exchanged over these matters between the law ministry and the home ministry for about two years. Once the issues are settled we can take legal steps and increase our revenue.
Prothom Alo: According to your citizen charter, all building owners and tenants have to have compliance certificates of fire safety. Occupancy certificates are mandatory for those who want to rent out old buildings. You are supposed to issue these certificates. How do they get these certificates?
Ali Ahmed Khan: Certificate seekers need to go to director to get these certificates. The certificates cannot be given till anybody of the department visits the spot. There is a committee to look into these matters. The fact is most of the people do not take certificates.
Prothom Alo: How do the 80 per cent of the buildings exist? The law has empowered the director general to order them shut.
Ali Ahmed Khan: Those who built buildings long ago, but did not fulfil conditions, they will not be able to show our certificates. We recently issued a circular in this regard. Those who are the law abiding, they came to us. But they are few in number.
Prothom Alo: How will these problems be cleared?
Ali Ahmed Khan: Those who will not comply with the conditions, will have to be shut and fined. But under the existing law, we cannot do that. The fire service has to be empowered. The law has to be amended. The fire service is a regulatory body. So it has to be empowered and its manpower has to be increased.
Prothom Alo: Are you happy with the upgraded fire code?
Ali Ahmed Khan: No, there are many limitations. According to the firefighting act of 2003, we have to issue certificates if the building is above six floors. But this rule contradicts RAJUK rules. RAJUK says that their certificates will do if the buildings are above 10 floors. We noticed that high-rise buildings were built adjacent to narrow roads with the consent of RAJUK, ignoring the fire service. Serious disasters will occur if the regulatory body is ignored in such a way.
Prothom Alo: Your annual report says that sources of more than 50 per cent of fires are households, electricity systems and cigarettes. Why?
Ali Ahmed Khan: Electric systems are the reason behind 60 to 65 per cent of the fires. We do not have any electric auditing system which many countries have. We have suggested amending the existing law by incorporating electric safety. Electric wiring does not always guarantee long-term safeguard. There should be a certain audit firm to oversee this. We asked 50 firms to ensure fire safety plan. But we need an amendment of the law for that. The director general of fire service will be the chief, but this matter of auditing should be done by outsourcing. We would renew occupancy certificates based on the audit report. We must emulate laws enacted in other part of the world. You would be glad to know that a plan has been taken in cooperation with UNDP to reform our department. Other related departments should cooperate with us as it is impossible for the fire service alone to manage all things. We are totally involved in dousing the fire.
Prothom Alo: You were in charge while big incidents such as the Tazreen Fashion fire, Rana Plaza collapse and Chawk Bazar fire happened.
Ali Ahmed Khan: Each incident is unfortunate but it also enhanced our experience. Big changes were brought to the garments sector following pressure from buyers after the Tazreen and Rana Plaza incidents. Despite all these, the incidents of fire have not decreased. But, the number of deaths has decreased. It is surprising that thousands of building have been built without informing the fire department.
Prothom Alo: The Gulshan kitchen market caught fire in January 2017 when you were DG. New buildings had been built at the same place and without any fire safety measure. Who is to blame for it?
Ali Ahmad Khan: The city corporation authorities totally ignored us in this case. We issued a written complaint regarding this building and another adjacent three-storey building. But they ignored our complaint.
Prothom Alo: What kind of reforms do you want?
Ali Ahmed Khan: Every country of the world recruits fire fighters according to the number of their population. We have 35,000 fire fighters in Dhaka city while the number of fire fighters is less than 500. We need satellite stations for fire fighting. Traffic jams also challenge fighting fire and this should be addressed. Many problems are solved when brought to the prime minister’s attention, but there are a lot of bureaucratic stages in between. But fire stations would be built in every upazilas as per prime minister’s direction.
Every department should do its specific duty. Other departments should work under the fire department. The police department leads anti-terror drives while other departments support them. We need to come out of the blame game and should work professionally.
Prothom Alo: Thank you.
Ali Ahmed Khan: Thank you too.
* This interview appeared in Bangla in the print version of Prothom Alo and has been rewritten here in English by Rabiul Islam