The fires at Nimtali and Chawk Bazar in Old Dhaka, in Banani and Gulshan’s DNCC Market are all examples of neglect, mismanagement and lack of preparedness regarding fire safety.
Extinguishing the fire is the last stage of fire safety. Once a fire blazes in full force in any building, it is difficult for even the most efficient fire extinguishing system to prevent death and injury of those inside. It is only possible to protect the property and the people using the building by having expert engineers design a full-fledged fire safety system for the structure and regularly ensuring its maintenance.
Policymakers, the public, everyone must understand the gravity of the matter. By stepping up close monitoring in the readymade garment sector, it has been possible to improve safety in the industry. This can be applied to other sectors too.
There is no alternative to following the building code. It is ridiculous to imagine the building owners can do this alone. The regulatory bodies must carry out their responsibilities with due professionalism. They do not do so due to the absence of accountability.
If any building is to be made fireproof, certain measures must be adopted. The most effective step of fire prevention is to completely eliminate the possible causes of fire. This is prevention.
But technically speaking, it is not possible to eliminate all the causes completely and ensure 100 per cent prevention. So, protection must be ensured along with prevention.
The two together comprise a full-fledged fire security system. Despite certain loopholes, our building code does have guidelines for a full-fledged fire safety system. It is possible to make all buildings secure from fire of keep the fire risks down to acceptable levels if the fire safety planning of a building is drawn up in keeping with the code and regular maintenance is ensured. Proper engineering knowledge and technical knowhow is required for standard fire safety planning.
What steps can be taken for fire prevention? Fire needs three elements – fuel, oxygen and heat. And even if these three elements are present, there will not be any fire unless the combination is ignited by a spark. So, the way to prevent fire in a building can be to practice extreme caution in keeping any equipment that generates heat and creates open flame. Equipment that produces heat must be kept clean. No inflammable objects or minute particles must come in contact with this heat. Measures must be taken to ensure no spark is created within the office. One of the main sources of such sparks is faulty design in the building’s power distribution system, the structure and the maintenance. A study shows that 75 per cent of the fires in Bangladesh are from electricity sources.
The main reason behind faulty electric wiring in the buildings of this country is failure to understand the importance of proper planning of the electrical system which leaders to faulty wiring and unprofessional and inefficient maintenance. Planning and designing the buildings electric wiring system by experienced and expert engineers and contractors in accordance to the regulations, and regularly maintaining this, reducing the chances of fire to a great extent. However, as it is not possible to remove all sources of fire, measures must be taken for the protection of people’s lives and property.
A buildings fire protection system can be divided into two categories: active system and passive system. The active system is automated and the other one is manual. The fire detection system is both automated and manual. The system must have equipment to detect the heat and the smoke and sound the alarm accordingly so that the persons within the building can exit is time. The active system may also have fire extinguishers, sprinklers, hose pipe systems, etc., to extinguish the fire. Sprinklers spray water automatically to put out the fire. In many buildings, they rely on the individuals within to use the fire extinguishers or hose pipes to put out the fire.
The passive system is certain structural features that prevent spread of fire and ensure that those in the building can exit safely, avoiding the smoke. All around the world, 70 per cent of the people who died in fire are suffocated by the smoke. In Banani’s FR Tower too, no one burned to death. The passive system ensures that the people can exit through the fire corridors and stairways, free from the smoke. Both these systems make up a full-fledged fire safety system.
Neither system was in place in the Banani building. The life-saving factor was completely absent. The lack of responsibility and commitment on the part of the regulatory bodies can be blamed for this. Had a fire detection system and adequate fire exits been in place, in the people could have exited from the building as soon as the fire caught. Perhaps the fire could even have been brought under control quickly. Of course, if there are many flammable items, it is not only possible to extinguish the fire manually. If sprinklers are in place, these spray water the moment the fire is detected and restricts the flames to a certain area, if not extinguish the fire completely. By then the fire service can arrive and bring things under control.
If a passive system is designed properly, the fire cannot spread rapidly to the other floors. Smoke cannot enter the stairs. Safe exit is the most important. Flammable items must be kept to the minimum and risks can be lessened with the minimum use of inflammable products in the interior decor.
Correct designs and construction methods can be used in new buildings, but what about the old ones? How can the safety of these buildings be endured? Structural changes are complicated and costly. Performance-based retrofitting can be carried out. Hydrants can be set up near high rise buildings in the city and more water tanks set up on the buildings, demolishing couple of floors if required. Fire separation systems must be put in place for safe exit. Centrally air-conditioned buildings must have fire dampers. High rise buildings must have fire lifts. There have to be regular fire drills. The regulatory bodies RAJUK and the fire department must regularly monitor the buildings and issue certificates accordingly. The bottom line is, the building code must be followed and the buildings must be made safe.
Fire safety is totally overlooked in the country’s engineering studies. There is no fire protection engineer in the country. It is high time that a fire protection and safety institute to set up at BUET. There must be a post for a fire protection engineer in every regulatory body and organisation dealing with design, planning and structure.
* The writers are experts in different fields of engineering, fire safety and related sectors