An Urban FireScape

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By Rashna Mahzabin

The Urgency of Fire Safety and Security in Dhaka

Bangladesh is one of the most disaster-prone countries in the world. The country experienced several massive natural and human-induced disasters. Due to its geographical location, the country is very vulnerable to disasters. Besides, a huge spike in population, unplanned and illegal structures leads to the frequent occurrence of disasters. Fire hazard-related disasters have become a crucial one. In the recent past, fire safety and security have come under a lot of scrutinies. After back to back deadly fire incidents, fire safety and security has become a matter of concern.

A fire hazard is a situation where there is a greater risk involved relative to other hazardous situation. Fire hazard incident is a common phenomenon in Bangladesh, especially in the densely populated Dhaka city. Being the hub of all economic activities, this city compels people to live here and construct several buildings both household and commercial. When they build these structures, the authorities usually do not follow buildings code or go against RAJUK’s plan. According to the Pursuant to Rule 17 (1) of the 1996 Building Regulations of Bangladesh, an emergency exit gate shall be set up on each floor connected to the basement. The installation of a fire extinguisher or other alternative arrangement has to be provided in a clear location of the building along with fire alarms to indicate the exit of the building.

Only the Bangladesh Fire Service and Civil Defense Authority (BFSCDA) provides fire license by the subsection of 7 and 8 of Fire Service Ordinance 1959 to warehouses and industries. According to this rule, the applicant has to apply with a prescribed form addressing the Director General of FSCDA enclosed with the relevant documents (i.e. a plan in scale of 1 inch = 8 ft of the warehouse or industry, relevant papers that prove the tenure, trade license and also including a statement on a non-judiciary stamp). The authority then examines the provided information through the field inspector. After a satisfactory report from the field inspector, the Director-General provides fire license to the applicant after receiving the prescribed fee. The authority generally provides fire license for one year. The Ordinance of 1959 also empowers the relevant fire officer of respective jurisdictions to investigate any warehouse and industry without prior notification. Here it should be mentioned that the Ordinance of 1959 can provide fire license only to warehouse and industry but not for the residential, commercial or other categories.

Article 4 of the 2003 Fire Protection Act provides that a person wishing to use a building like a warehouse or a workshop must obtain a permit from the Directorate-General Fire and Civil Defense. Violation of this section will result in a term of imprisonment of three years or a fine and confiscation of the building with the goods stored therein. Section 7 states, without prejudice to the provisions of any other law, no design or construction of the multi-story commercial building shall be authorized or modified in relation to fire safety or extinction without the permission of the Directorate-General for Fire and Civil Protection. Article 18 indicates that a violation of Article 7 can be punished by imprisonment of six months or a fine. Section 8 (3) instructs all owners of the building to take precautions and other measures necessary for public safety. The 2003 Fire Protection Act is supplemented by the 2014 Fire Protection and Extinction Regulation, which requires the building owner to apply for a building occupancy certificate at the end of the building (Rule 22). This will allow the authority to inspect the building and verify that the owner meets all the requirements of the building law for public safety.

The Building Construction Law 1996 also provides some measures for fire safety at the individual building premises. According to this law, the buildings will be constructed within a safe distance of the open electric line, there will be at least 2.5 meters open space between residential and commercial site (setback standards), and the buildings must have the provision of an emergency exit.
Chapter 4 of the Bangladesh National Construction Act 2006 regulates the design, construction, and placement of components to provide a safe and adequate escape. Buildings must be cleared during repair or conversion work unless existing escape routes and fire protection are maintained continuously or other exit and protection measures are taken to ensure an equivalent level of safety. All buildings constructed for the use or storage of human beings must be equipped with suitable exit devices to allow the safe and fast flight of people in the event of a fire or other emergencies. According to paragraph 3.3.5, the owner of the building is responsible for the safety of all passengers. Ladders or elevators present for regular use cannot be considered an emergency exit. This Code also includes some exit requirements for various occupations such as health, education, institutional, residential, industrial, etc.

On the other hand, Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh (the Accord) was signed on 15 May 2013. It is a legally binding five-year contract between international brands, retailers and unions, which intends to build a ready-to-use and healthy garment for the Bangladesh Industry (RMG). The agreement resulted from the immediate collapse of the Rana Plaza building, which resulted in more than 1,100 deaths and more than 2,000 injuries. An implementation plan was agreed in June 2013, which lead to the signing of the Bangladesh Agreement in the Netherlands in October 2013.

The Accord consists of six main components:
· A legally binding five-year agreement between brands and unions to ensure a safe working environment in the RMG industry in Bangladesh
· An independent inspection program supported by brands involving workers and unions
· Publication of all factories, inspection reports and corrective action plans (CAP)
· Commitment from signed brands to ensure adequate funding for the treatment and maintenance of resource relations
· Health and safety committees democratically elected in all farms to identify health and safety risks and take action
· Empowering employees through an intensive training program, a complaints procedure and the right to refuse unsafe work.
A study by the Institute of Disaster Management and Vulnerability Studies of the University of Dhaka analyzed the incidence of fire hazards from different angles. It was found that about 47% respondents told the incident of fire was an accident, followed by about 24% who said the incidence was man-made, while about 5.0% said it was spread and caught naturally. On the other hand, about 24% of respondents who usually live in slums don’t know the causes of fire hazards. The report did unearth some of the underlying and pressing issues which prove fire hazards to be as deadly as they have been.

Limited Enforcement of Rules and Regulations to the Individual Building Level
In the building’s facilities, the Planning Permit has three important steps, such as land use cleaning, building permit, and occupancy certificate. RAJUK has very few planning officers for a city of 11.3 million people. On the other hand, only 4 people participate in the fire prevention section to grant fire permits in the city of Dhaka. It is impossible for this insufficient workforce to correctly apply the existing legal provisions. The Fire Protection Act 2003 states that all buildings built before 2003 had to renew their licenses. Currently, in the city of Dhaka, many buildings are built without fire license or even without RAJUK’s planning permission, especially in old Dhaka. The building code does not permit the construction of any building of more than six storeys without a lift. In addition, any building with 10 or more floors should have elevators large enough to carry patients on stretchers. It is mandatory to have emergency generators for elevators, but now developers and building owners are ignoring them because of lack of supervision and compliance.

The Fire Protection Act 2003 has provisions for all the buildings, including high-rises and commercial establishments, to have sufficient fire-fighting equipment and to conform to measures of public security. Most of the high rises in Dhaka do not have any automatic power backup. There is a possibility for the inhabitants to get the elevators during the fire occurrence when power is cut off and elevators become inoperative. There is also a provision for keeping breathing apparatuses in every high-rise building but very few of the inhabitants know about the use of such apparatuses.

Limited Practice of Planning Norms in City Perspective
Except in some planned areas, Dhaka is more or less an organic city with the substandard enforcement of planning laws. Most of the areas of the city are characterized by narrow road system which in many cases is obstructing the entrance, movement, and manoeuvre of fire service vehicles at the time of emergency. The low mobility on the road system also increases the response time of the authority and ultimately causing serious fire destruction in minor cases. As the number of fire stations is limited and firefighters have to travel long distances, this causes difficulty in providing timely support to the masses in most cases. Dhaka City is gradually losing its retention ponds and natural reservoirs due to excessive population pressure and unplanned urbanization. Many canals and lakes have been subject to encroachment and filled up for construction of buildings. As the city has no street fire hydrant arrangement and along with the gradual disappearance of natural water sources, the firefighters usually have to face the scarcity of water during a rescue mission. Moreover, a land use zoning for Dhaka City is not established. It is very usual to find the indiscriminate intermixing of various uses, such as- residential, commercial and industrial uses together in the same location. On the other hand, due to the absence of sufficient setback the structural density of Dhaka City is high compared with other cities of Bangladesh. Considering these factors, Dhaka City is one of the most fire disaster-prone city of the country.

Limited Capacity of the Concerned Authority
Dhaka has been developed in an enormous rate but the life-supporting facilities are not developing in a proportionate manner. The authority has the lacking of trained manpower. BFSCDA has no equipped central controlling system to control of its vehicles properly in case of an emergency. After the commencement of an accident, the vehicles from various stations generally travel to provide the necessary support. But without any central control system, in most cases, the vehicles use the same route, which in many times causes unexpected traffic congestion and clogging of the road for emergency support. The authority does not have any database or sufficient resources to develop risk mapping of Dhaka city which causes serious difficulties for location analysis.

Intentional Fire and Political Unrest
The political destabilization of the country is very sensitive. This often causes intentional fire and intentional damage of property. With limited manpower and firefighting equipment, the BFSCDA usually have to involve themselves with such challenges whose ultimate impact cause the failure to provide the necessary support to general people in case of an emergency fire.

Public Awareness and Training
Only public awareness can help prevent incidences of fire destruction and the loss of lives. Electric short circuit and the spread of fire from the burner are the major causes of fire hazards in Dhaka City. Lack of maintenance of the equipment for a long time generally causes the electric short circuit. Awareness at the individual public level could prevent the occurrence of such fire incidence. Training is an important consideration that can reduce the loss of lives and damage to properties. In most cases of fire incidences, people become very afraid and are unable to take appropriate decisions to escape the blaze. Ultimately, this leads to casualties. Various fire fighting equipment is sometimes provided in an individual building but they are inferior in number, and in many cases located in isolated places and people do not know how to use this equipment. As a result, the equipment does not provide any benefit during the time of emergency. The crowd of onlookers poses another hindrance for the firefighters during their work. Sometimes the crowd becomes too large that they even clog the movement of fire fighting vehicles towards the target location.

Lack of Government Awareness
The Government has a lack of concern regarding the modernization of the FSCDA. Most of the cities in Bangladesh are developing without any emergency action plan. After any type of destruction, these issues are highly discussed and pointed in local newspapers but with the gradual progress of time, the incidence ultimately fades away from people’s memory. As a result, the government displays a reluctant attitude in taking further steps for strengthening fire-fighting capacity.

Safety issues should be given high priority in the urban areas because of the involvement of a huge population in a limited geographical space. At present BFSCDA is working as the emergency service providing organizational support while the authority has very limited involvement in the planning decision. The city authorities like RAJUK, City Corporation, etc. are also characterized by weak institutional capacity. The existing legal provisions are also limited and needed to be modified for proper enforcement. Dhaka is growing in an unplanned manner and unfortunately, the authorities have very limited control over the development trend. Urban fire hazard management is not only an institutional issue, rather it is much more a planning issue as it involves safety concern of the city dwellers. It would be very difficult for a single organization to provide the necessary support for fire hazard management of Dhaka City. Fire safety issues should be addressed from the individual building premises to the city planning level.

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