On Monday, when six bodies were pulled out from the ashen ruins of a plastic factory above a hotel in Chawkbazar, it once again brought to the fore the abject failure of the authorities to address fire hazard in our rapidly growing capital.
While firefighters often take the blame for not arriving on time, the complete lack of urban planning of Dhaka is equally to blame, if not more.
Take for example Old Dhaka. There was the June 2010 Nimtoli fire killing 124 people and February 2019 Churihatta Intersection fire killing 72, among many other fire outbreaks in the densely packed area. The lanes are so narrow and clogged in the area that firefighting vehicles cannot pass through, while the government has so far failed to shift the illegal factories and warehouses, which mostly deal in hazardous chemicals, despite numerous pledges.
"When there is a fire, we send these officers to the scene. But what about prevention measures?" said former Department of Fire Service and Civil Defence (FSCD) Director General Brigadier General (Retd.) Ali Ahmed Khan.
"Preventing is more important than fire fighting. [And] there is no preventive wing [in FSCD]," he said.
Although preventive measures in urban planning falls under the jurisdiction of the FSCD, Khan said the agency is hardly given the authority the job demands.
Lack of preventive measures, however, is not the only inadequacy that ails FSCD. As the death of the 10 firefighters (3 more remain missing) on 5 June at the BM container depot fire outbreak in Sitakunda, Chattogram showed, most firefighters still remain under-trained and ill-equipped. Meanwhile, as the number of fire incidents multiplied, FSCD's already small budget allocation was cut by 17% during the latest fiscal.
Walking into death traps
23 year old Rana Miah was one of the firefighters who died on 5 June. Rana hailed from Nabagram of Shibalaya in Manikganj.
"As far as I know he had a six-month training," said Pannu Miah, Rana's father, in a brittle voice. After two months since Rana's death, the wounds are still fresh, fresher are his childhood memories.
"He was most active in sports, be it cricket or sports. I cannot tolerate the memories, it is too much," said the father, yowling over the phone.
After 5 June, Pannu Miah and his younger son went to Chattogram city at least 5 to 7 times to submit documents and paperwork.
"The family did not receive any help from the fire station, yet," he informed us, adding they were however handed a Tk2 lakh cheque by Information Minister Hasan Mahmud.
Rana Miah - who joined the fire service in November 2020 - made Tk16,000 monthly and used to send a large sum home. His father lost his small rented shop in Keraniganj due to the Covid-19 pandemic.
When asked if there is any health or life insurance offered to firefighters, Khan replied, "No, there is no such thing unfortunately. There is something called risk allowance, which is a meagre amount. In the case of death, the firefighter's family's welfare should be taken care of."
FSCD training includes handling hazardous material but it is not nearly enough, according to the former fire services director. "Training is tremendously insufficient," he said, adding, "it should be at the least a one-year programme followed by certification and selection."
On 5 June, when Rana reached the BM container depot, the chemical explosion - something the FSCD were unaware of - killed him.
"There must be a database that keeps track of what [dangerous chemicals] are being kept or moved and the information shared with the FSCD. Or else we cannot just simply send our officers to the unknown to fight fire," said Khan.
A neglected agency
The Financial Express reported late last year that fire incidents increased by four-fold to 2,85,000 in two decades in the country.
However, in terms of budget allocation, the agency continues to be neglected. For fiscal year 2022-2023, the total annual budget for FSCD has been set at Tk962 crores from Tk1,179 crores in the previous fiscal year, accounting for a 17% decrease.
"Our training budget is also very much limited," said Khan. "I also suggest that we study and see what other countries are doing and succeeding in," he said.
Although modern equipment for FSCD has been procured by the government, it has far barely improved the institution's capabilities.
"The firefighters and personnel need software and hardware training," said Khan.
There are approximately 480 fire stations across the country and one headquarters in the capital. FSCD employs an estimated 13,000 personnel.
While logic dictates that there is one firefighter for every 1,000 people, this agency continues to have "major manpower shortage. And this is a tremendous problem," said Khan, adding, "number of police stations is increasing but not fire stations. There needs to be satellite fire stations as well."
Khan believes, at this point, the agency needs a complete overhaul.
"With urbanisation and expansion of industries come increased risks," explained Khan, but the FSCD is not seeing the changes that are required for its competence.
"We see how one person is going out to fight fire, do inspection, enquire and also work the desk. [Moreover], there is a lack of specialised wings. There should be different kinds of brigades [to fight different kinds of fires]. Otherwise, these firefighters end up with no personal time, which brings down morale," he said.
Of disrespect and emotional trauma
In the 2018 FR Tower fire, Shahidul Sumon, a junior officer, stationed at the FSCD headquarters in Dhaka, rushed after Kurmitola fire services called them in.
"It was total madness and chaos. I remember extending the ladder, and during my climb up, I saw bodies flinging down past me," he said.
"People were panicking, understandably. And down below, my driver [of the firetruck] and others were beaten by the public. Excitement, chaos ensued," recalled Sumon as his voice quivered again.
It is common for firefighters to be met with hostility when they arrive on the scene.
"Many blame them for arriving late and there have been cases when the fire service personnel are manhandled, vehicles vandalised and cursed. But please understand, we do not even have emergency lanes. Traffic makes it hard for us to move," said Khan.
At FR Tower, Sumon came across two women who were trapped.
"I shouted at them to stay calm. The fire raged and I tried to break in. But it was taking me some time."
"At one point, when they thought I could not make it to them, one of them screamed back at me that she was three months pregnant. Emotions ran high. You see, I had a toddler at home at the time," said Sumon.
Next, he asked them to lie flat on the ground because smoke tends to rise up. "Within what must have been minutes, I made it in and eventually got them both out. Once safe on the ladder, they broke down in tears. I did too."
FSCD training includes psychopathic training. "You see, firefighters have to be mentally strong. They may have to come across dead bodies and still have to remain calm to do their job," said Khan.
And then they have to carry the emotional trauma with them as they continue to risk their lives to save others.
Do you keep in touch with those you have rescued? "Due to the nature of the job, it is not quite feasible. I have saved tens of people by now," Sumon replied, adding, "but with some, yes, it naturally happens. For instance, the pregnant woman I mentioned from the FR Tower fire, she sent me her son's photo on messenger inbox."
Sumon said he has attended more than 100 fire incidents thus far, and "I can tell you that each is different from the last."