The fire at Sitakunda joins a long list of fire incidents, including the tragedies of Tazreen Fashion, Narayanganj Juice Factory and Chawkbazar. It appears that the security measures in place during a fire outbreak are largely ineffective. This begs the question - why?
In 2017, a total of 18,105 fires caused a loss of Tk257 crore. The fires injured 269 people and killed 45 others. According to information from the Fire Service and Civil Defence, there were approximately 21,601 fire occurrences in the nation in the year 2021. Additionally, the nation suffered an estimated financial loss of Tk218 crore as a result of these fire occurrences.
In five years, the number of fires increased by 4,117, or 22 percent. In the five years from 2016 to 2021, a total of 3,093 people were killed and 13,863 injured due to fire.
According to the fire service, a total of 1,17,060 fires have been reported across the country in the last six years, of which 6,081 were in industries.
Nearly all of the country's commercial and industrial buildings have indirect fire safety measures in place, such as smoke detectors, fire detectors, fire-fighting cylinders, and fire-fighting hose pipes. However, trained personnel are necessary to extinguish fire manually using the fire cylinder and hose. It also puts the lives of these people at risk, if the fire turns deadly.
What we need in medium and large-scale commercial and industrial structures are direct and automatic fire extinguishers that automatically detect fires and douse them. Fire balls are becoming increasingly popular these days as they explode in a fire and extinguish it. These safe technological solutions are not factored in, in the labour intensive work environment of Bangladesh's low-cost industrial production model, because implementation is relatively pricey.
There is also non compliance and mismanagement when it comes to indirect fire extinguishing systems. Although all floors in commercial and real estate buildings are fitted with public fire extinguishers, floor space or per capita capacity is not factored in.
In many cases fire extinguishers are expired. Some multi-storey buildings exhibit a hospice pipe, but they merely exist for show.
Most buildings lack emergency or fire exits. The same stairwell serves as both the common stair and emergency exit, with the latter more commonly omitted to conserve space. Even the design of the hallway, the main staircase and the foyer are usually not proportionate to the space and population of the building.
Another problem with centrally air-conditioned multi-storey buildings is that the generator room is located in the vicinity of the stairs, making it a risky getaway in the case of a fire outbreak. Buildings that do not have central air conditioning pose another threat with their external facade fitted with distributed ACs.
The most alarming element is that the building's initial electrical design, i.e. the electrical load capacity of conductive wires, circuit breakers, and other equipment is incompatible with the capacity of all other electrical equipment, including AC. As a result, there are two types of fires: an electrical short circuit under extreme load or the AC exhaust exploding. BUET research found that at least 70 percent of fires in the country are caused by electrical short circuits.
Adding to the challenges is the height capability of fire services. Usually fire services can reach a maximum height of 10 to 12 floors. If it is the case that a city's fire service is unable to douse water, gas or chemical based flames situated higher than a 12-storey building, then it is advisable to limit the construction of buildings to only 12 floors.
WASA water hydrants are supposed to be located within a certain distance (say 400 metres) of a building for fire-fighting, which is not the case. The alternative is to keep a reservoir. If there is no source of water near a building then it should not be permitted to be built. But a high-density city like Dhaka requires multi-storey buildings. It is imperative to consider ways to technically enable fire service access to such buildings.
Fire-fighting is a very labour-intensive and dangerous form of work. The inefficiency of managers exacerbates the problem of a technical skills shortage.
The situation is quite frustrating.
There are various professional institutes of architects and engineers in the country. There is REHAB, an organisation for builders. There is RAJUK, Ministry of Public Works, Department of Architecture and the Engineering Branch of City Corporation. But looking at everyone's work, it seems that no sense of environmental risk, climate security, or even civic security has developed among them institutionally.
Most of the multi-storied buildings in Dhaka city have not been constructed following compliance. Buildings that have been constructed illegally are not permissible to have water, gas, electricity or sewerage connections. All newly constructed buildings should undergo inspection to ensure it has been constructed in accordance with the rules.
The fire alarm system and fire defence processes and tools in each building should be inspected twice a year. Fire drills are supposed to be conducted twice a year, which ought to be documented and the results published online for the awareness of general tenants and employees. The purpose of a fire drill is to effectively evacuate a building under a short duration in case of a fire outbreak.
It should be made mandatory to fit emergency exits in all industrial buildings around the country. The addition of a jumping pad could be helpful. In the event it is required, it can be inflated using a motor from the nearest power source.
Fires in most of the labour-intensive industries in Bangladesh, including readymade garments, have claimed many lives. Workers are usually locked inside factories during work hours. Standard fire drills and inspections will allow issues such as mismanagement and non compliance to come to light.
Dr Rakib Al Hasan is a physician, author and activist.
Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the opinions and views of The Business Standard.