India needs a new approach to fire safety

In addition the codes governing fire safety and governance, we should have guidelines and framework to conduct a comprehensive risk-assessment for our cities

By Rajneesh Sareen
Published: Monday 18 February 2019
Buckets of sand. Credit: Getty Images

Whenever an incident of fire takes place, the investigation afterwards highlights issues such as non-compliant construction; lack of precautionary maintenance like the upkeep of extinguishers, fire doors, fire exits and their markings and assembly areas; gross overlook of safety procedures such as evacuation drills; and lack of recording of significant consideration for better response towards flammable materials, and their use in cladding and partitions walls.

City-wide physical changes like the densification of areas, non-compliant use of properties, and change in their use — which leads to local traffic congestion or on-street parking that constricts fire tender movement or delays their access to the affected area — are also blamed.

Let us discuss some of the major laws in India governing fire safety and governance.

The National Building Code of India, 2016

Part 4 of the National Building Code (NBC) of India, 2016, is titled ‘Fire and Life Safety’. It covers the requirements for fire prevention, life safety in relation to fire and fire protection of buildings. The code specifies occupancy-wise classification, constructional aspects, egress requirements and protection features that are necessary to minimise danger to life and property from fire. It specifies the demarcations of fire zones, restrictions on constructions of buildings in each fire zone, classifications of buildings based on occupancy, types of building construction according to fire resistance of the structural and non-structural components and other restrictions and requirements necessary to minimise danger of life from fire, smoke, fumes or panic before the buildings can be evacuated.

The code broadly covers the following areas:

Fire prevention: This covers aspects of fire prevention pertaining to the design and construction of buildings. It also describes the various types of buildings materials and their fire rating.

Life Safety: This covers life safety provisions in the event of fire and similar emergencies, also addressing construction and occupancy features that are necessary to minimise danger to life from fire, smoke, fumes or panic.

Fire Protection: Covers significant appurtenances (accessories) and their related components and guidelines for selecting the correct type of equipment and installations meant for fire protection of the building, depending upon the classifications and type of building.

The guidelines for fire drills and evacuations for high-rise buildings are also specified in NBC Part 4. It mandates the appointment of a qualified fire officer and trained staff for significant land uses.

The Model Building ByeLaws, 2003  

In 2003, the Union Ministry of Urban Development desired that the Model Building ByeLaws (MBBL) be prepared, in view of the Bhuj Earthquake that had occurred in 2001, to lay focus on the safety of buildings and for the guidance of state governments.

Under the MBBL:

Point-specific responsibility for all fire-related clearance rests with the Chief Fire Officer. The concerned Development Authority shall refer the building plans to the Chief Fire Officer for obtaining clearance in respect of buildings. Any eligible building needs to undertake necessary approval or the Completion certificate will not be granted by the competent authority and the occupancy of the building cannot be administered.

The Chief Fire Officer shall issue the ‘No Objection Certificate’ from the view point of fire safety and means of escape, after satisfying himself that all the fire protection measures have been implemented and are functional as per approved plans.

On the basis of the undertaking given by the Fire Consultant/Architect, the Chief Fire Officer shall renew the fire clearance in respect of the following buildings on an annual basis:

1) Public entertainment and assembly

2) Hospitals

3) Hotels

4) Underground shopping complex

Cities are dynamic and they undergo changes

Our cities undergo rapid physical changes, much like a chain reaction. A rising population demands more space to live and work. As a result, residential and commercial buildings primarily witness expansion and densification over time. This leads to increased traffic on roads. What we are not able to comprehend is how to capture this dynamism in our planning and development process, in order to be safe, prepared and responsive to disasters such as a fire incident.

As an urban planner, this question always resonates in my mind. Do we have or revise the Fire Master Plan for our towns and cities? In fact, the first question is how many cities have a Master Plan? The answer is not even 30 per cent. Even if there are any, are they legal master plans or draft ones?

Secondly, who calculates the original/revised fire risks based on old/new densification regimes, provisioning during the construction and then, the regularisation of unauthorised colonies, land use and later change of use provisioning, speed and delay in traffic movements and its fine tuning with revised fire layouts of towns?

Even for the installed assets, petty gains, short cuts, negligence, lack of upkeep and inappropriateness of installations, checks and balances go missing, which make them non-functional or under- performing. 

So what should be done?

In addition to the codes and governance overlays which exist in India, we should have guidelines/framework to conduct a comprehensive risk-assessment for our cities. Risks coexist and can be complex; they are qualitative and quantitative, hence there is a dire need to study these in city-wide and local contexts. By and large, these risk-assessment studies should be an integral part of every master planning exercise, which should be revised for changes in land use and density. 

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