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Fire Department Shrinks To A Firefighting Force

The fire in the terrace godown of Bombay Bazaar on the 18th June Road has once again highlighted the failure of the fire department and the owners of commercial buildings to install fire safety systems. The risks of loss of human lives and destruction of property from fire in commercial buildings remain very high across the state. There have been more than half a dozen fire incidents in Panaji alone in last one year. The intriguing thing about the Bombay Bazaar fire, as in most fires, is that the fire department cannot point out the cause of fire! The mayor of the Corporation of the city of Panaji, Vithal Naik Chopdekar says, “Action in accordance with law will be taken against those who have violated the building laws and covered terraces to extend the floor areas.” These words are no more than an empty threat, for all the authorities – the director of fire services and the senior police officials who visited the Bombay Bazaar site during the night of fire, together with CCP mayor and chief executive officer who have all the files – have maintained a conspiratorial silence on the question whether the ‘terrace godown’ of Bombay Bazaar was authorized and whether the electricity connections to it were legal. Two days after the Bombay Bazaar incident, the fire department released statistics that revealed that 104 of the 142 high rise buildings in Panaji have not complied with fire safety norms or renewed the no objection certificate. This is the list, but where is the action? By not taking action against the owners of the commercial and residential buildings, the fire department and the CCP become complicit with them in allowing fire incidents to take place.

Last year a supermarket at the Kadamba Bus Terminus was gutted in fire. The investigating agencies failed to find the cause of fire. In June this year a shop in the heart of city was reduced to ashes. A shop was gutted in Mapusa a few months ago. The dialysis unit at the Hospicio hospital was gutted earlier this year. The list of fire incidents is long. The KTC bus terminus fire was attributed to negligence of the building management that despite several fire incidents in the past failed to take preventive steps. Commercial and residential buildings are not equipped with fire fighting system. No one checks whether fire hydrants and other equipment are working in the buildings where they are installed. With no enforcement, most building managements prefer to flout fire safety rules, exposing humans and properties to great risks.

Owing to lack of professional integrity and zeal, the directorate of fire and emergency services has reduced itself to a firefighting department. Its main role should have been prevention of fire, not the quenching of it. Although the directorate knows that more than 70 per cent of building managements have not renewed fire safety licences, no action is taken against any of them. What to speak of renewal of licence, illegal structures and extensions have been added in commercial and residential buildings. Among the 104 buildings in the city which do not have fire safety licence are 17 government buildings. The list of buildings and other premises coming under the ambit of law for fire safety in the state would be in thousands. There have been allegations that illegal use of space and illegal constructions and extensions are done by paying bribes to officials of local bodies and fire department.

After the KTC bus stand fire almost all government departments sought the assistance of fire and emergency services department to set up a functional fire fighting system. The fire department had described many government buildings, frequented by thousands of people every day, as ‘firetraps.’ The latest statistics released by the fire department says that 17 of the 20 government buildings are not fire safety compliant – that is, they have failed to install proper fire fighting system. Following the Kamala Mills fire in Mumbai last December in which a dozen people died, the North Goa collector had decided to take proactive measures to ensure that buildings were fire safety compliant. Though a no objection certificate from fire services department was made mandatory for high rise buildings and commercial establishments, the fire services department statistics reveal that most building managements did not comply with the requirements and they were not compelled by the concerned authorities to do it. The directorate of the fire and emergency services department must not look complacent in the public eye about fire prevention, for that would suggest they are complicit.

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