Monday, November 3, 2014

Gangtok – Challenged for Safety


Two major fires in the past week, one of which resulted in a fatality [the death of a child], has once again raised the question of how safe Gangtok really is from such disasters. Inadequate building byelaws, ineffectual implementation of safety norms, cramped spaces, lack of coordination between concerned agencies and low level of awareness among the people and neglect by property owners places Gangtok rather high on the vulnerability list of natural or manmade disasters [if such a list exists]. With the population of Gangtok growing by the day and the capital preferring to get crowded instead of expanding, one wonders if Gangtok can even be prepared for the worst case scenario of a major fire or a natural disaster that leaves a wider footprint that the last big earthquake.
Deputy Chief Fire Officer, Fire Department, Prakash Rai, a veteran when it comes to fighting fires in Sikkim, says that if the level of awareness among the masses and coordination between all concerned organizations does not improve, mitigation will remain a far cry even as rescue and relief will be severely challenged in the event of a “big” event.
The DCFO points out that with Gangtok now having over six major slum areas identified, inaccessibility to reach all areas in the event of a disaster could turn the tables around for any firefighting agency.
“In some parts of Gangtok there are around 16 families living in 20 rooms in a single, cramped building,” he points out to illustrate that access and maneuverability are not hindered only on the roads but also on location.
Most buildings with tenants are similarly crowded, presenting a major challenge to evacuation, rescue and firefighting efforts.
Since these tenements cannot be emptied out, the only option left is wider awareness and more responsible living and lifestyles.
“There has to be some awareness on fire safety and even the concerned house-owners should now start believing that what happened in Deorali last week where a child died of suffocation could happen to them as well,” the DCFO states.

In Gangtok, apart from worry of fighting disasters like fires in chaotic tenements that pretend to be residential buildings, the bigger concern and worry is the prospect of fighting fires in public establishments such as private schools and the mushrooming hotels in and around the capital. Indiscriminate and unplanned construction in areas that were already congested has made it difficult for the fire department to reach help to the victims on time. There has not been an incident on these lines, that is no guarantee that it will not happen. A visit to some private schools operating out of buildings constructed for residences and serviced by a single flight of cramped stairs should have more people worried. In this regard, schools with their own campus and open spaces, like most government schools, are better appointed.
Safety clearly does not rank very high in the list of priorities for Gangtok establishments. Take for instance, the dangerous practice of hotels locking the main [and only] gate of the properties at night. Guests returning to their hotels after a late night out can be spied often knocking at these doors trying to wake up the attendant. In the event of a fire in the hotel, guests will be trapped inside by the same doors. And yet the practice continues unchecked.
The DCFO adds here that Gangtok has now become a hub for all business activities including travel and trade and “prevention” is the only solution to avert tragedies. He says that all concerned like every owner of a hotel or a principal of a school should be aware of the risks involved if such an incident was to occur in their premises and each should have a counter measure in place and all its staff and personnel drilled for safe evacuation and rescue efforts.
“Even in areas with small passages, some clear escape spaces have to be kept so that in case of an emergency we have access for evacuating people and deal with the disaster,” he states, while adding that this is the only way disasters can be dealt with effectively since the Fire department does not have the authority to dismantle any structure before a fire or any disaster.
“We have been distributing IEC [information, education, communication] material, conducting school safety awareness programmes and evacuation drills in schools for the past many years and this has helped to a great extent. There are also other agencies like the Land Revenue and Disaster management department which are doing their part but still in case of a tragedy the only option that we as fire fighters have is for the concerned people to be aware of the risks beforehand and put-up an accessibility mechanism in place for us to do our job,” he states.
Here, he adds that as per the experience of the Fire & Emergency Services department, it has always been a tough job fighting fires in Gangtok. He mentions that every time it is the same situation they have to deal with. “We have a prescribed format for fighting fires but in Gangtok we have to change all tactics and adapt given the ground situation and peculiar challenges which take time and could prove fatal for a trapped victim. We set targets before hand but that does not work at times since we have to adapt with every disaster, practically saying fire fighting is becoming difficult here everyday,” he states.    
In this context he also stresses on the need for the people to follow the rules and guidelines laid down by the department like setting up of a good security and fire proof system in their respective premises like hotels. “What if the main gate of a hotel is closed and the customers are all stuck inside the building when a fire occurs. There should at least be extinguishers, first aid kits, torches etc to respond to the fire initially since we take some time to reach the spot. This is what the general public should realize and adapt as precautionary and preventive measures. A little help from every angle comes handy to fight disasters effectively,” states the DCFO.
He also lays stress on the need for all concerned departments to adopt precautionary measures in respect to fire prevention and help in fire control.
Firefighters come in only after a fire has started but what if the concerned departments set up mechanisms that would discourage fires from breaking out? What if the power department regularly maintains transformers and electrical circuits [since short circuits are blamed most often for starting fires]? What if the traffic police regularly clear traffic from congested arterial roads so that keeping clear access becomes a habit for vehicle owners? What if the Buildings & Housing Department, UD&HD and GMC coordinated and maintained a close check on building bye-laws? What if the PHE maintains the supply of water in the water hydrants and static tanks at a regular basis and it is not done only after a verification finds the tanks empty. Every one clearly has a part to play in the risk management.
Meanwhile, the DCFO adds here that vehicle parking management in each locality could be carried out by respective societies. He also mentions that each locality could also devise methods of effective firefighting in their respective areas by bringing in suggestions and the general public taking up initiatives to combat disasters in their areas.
That said, despite lapses and challenges, the firefighters have and will respond to any situation. The DCFO maintains that the fire department personnel regularly conduct topography recce and verification of identified trouble areas in and around Gangtok flagging the worries and devising solutions in the event that they have to charge into these traps on rescue and firefighting missions. “Even if we do not have the latest equipment, we still have alternative means to deal with fires like backpacks, breathing apparatus for congested areas, small mobile fire tenders and extra hoses. But till we get there it should be the general public of the area who should be more aware,” he states.
He adds here that since the months of February, March and April are the dry spell and more prone to forest fires [apart from other fires], it is only awareness that could lead to control of this disaster since firefighting in the terrain here is still a major challenge for firefighters because of the limited manpower technology.
“We have nine fire stations in the state and that is still not enough in the context of how Sikkim is growing.  Risk management is what is needed and our mantra now should be, Safety-Making it a way of Life,” he stresses.

While agreeing that awareness is the most effective medium, the Deputy Mayor, Gangtok Municipal Corporation, Shakti Singh states that even the municipality and the state line departments have now begun to understand the gravity of the situation at hand. He says that keeping in view the precarious situation Gangtok is in at the moment, the GMC has endorsed the vulnerability aspect with the line departments.
“We have addressed this issue with the Development Commissioner and have requested him for the establishment of more sub-stations in and around Gangtok. With Gangtok growing, we now require fire substations at every major locality for which we are devising an action plan,” he states.
Here, he states that fire sub stations are now being considered for areas such as Bye-Pass, Tadong and Sichey. Further, he also informs that static tanks (reserve water tanks) would also be considered for inaccessible areas like Deorali and Siyari where there will be provisions of water hydrants in the suburbs of Gangtok as well.
“The civil defense under the District Collector is also undergoing trainings continuously. The GMC is coordinating with the administration to help in rescue and first in case of such disasters as well. The UD&HD is also in the process of working out a new building byelaw that could prove useful in fire fighting,” adds the Deputy Mayor.
He also informs that water hydrants in most of the 15 wards in Gangtok could be a possibility soon since there would be 24 hrs continuous running water in the future thanks to the water supply programme under the ADB that will be implemented soon.
“New hydrants can be set up, and new static tanks constructed since there will be direct accessibility of water to these areas soon. Unlike now when we have to inform the PHE to leave the water to a certain tank in an area when a fire arises, with this scheme there will be continuous water that will prove effective in fire fighting,” he states.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Readers are invited to comment on, criticise, run down, even appreciate if they like something in this blog. Comments carrying abusive/ indecorous language and personal attacks, except when against the people working on this blog, will be deleted. It will be exciting for all to enjoy some earnest debates on this blog...