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Seat of power singed, chinks in fire armour
- Minor mishap at Project Building bares callous disregard for safety

A minor fire broke out at Project Building in Ranchi on Wednesday afternoon following a “technical snag” in the switch system and though quickly brought under control, it exposed a litany of lapses in blaze preparedness even in the state’s corridors of power.

According to secretariat employees, the fire was noticed near the road construction special secretary’s office on the third floor around 1.45pm, when more than 1,500 people, including senior bureaucrats, were present in the five-storey building that boasts 400-odd rooms.

“The floor suddenly filled up with smoke and there were crackling sounds coming from the switch system. A staff of the department raised an alarm and everyone started running. I too rushed towards one of the three stairways,” recalled Ram Lakhan, a Grade IV employee.

Ranjeet Kumar, personal assistant to special secretary A.P. Choudhary, was the first to notice the sparks. He claimed the mishap would not have taken place had the electrician responded to this complaint. “When I reached office around 10.30am, I smelt burning rubber near the switch board. I informed the electrician. But, no one turned up to attend to the problem,” he expressed his concern.

An employee of the home department, Bala Kiran, said she informed the fire brigade before leaving office after the alarm was sounded.

Project Building security in-charge Mohammed Zafarullah confirmed that the blaze was minor. “It was doused within 15 minutes and even before the two fire tenders from Dhurwa, pressed into service within 10 minutes of the fire being noticed, could operate,” he claimed.

A spot survey of the secretariat, which houses VIPs in various departments such as home, building construction, social welfare, road construction, information technology, finance and commercial tax, revealed that it wasn’t quite there as far as fire safety is concerned.

The colossal building may boast some four dozen fire extinguishers, but lacks the crucial human factor that often determines casualties in case of a large blaze.

Besides dearth of skilled manpower, the corridors of power also lack smoke sensors, sprinklers, a carbon dioxide flooding system (for electrical fires) or a fire hydrant (for building water pressure).

State fire officer Suresh Prasad admitted the lapses, but in the same breath expressed his satisfaction over fire safety at the secretariat.

“The Project Building premises is airy and spacious. There are three stairways in the building, which can adequately meet the need of evacuation, if necessary. Apart from these, around 40 fire extinguishers are kept ready on the different floors,” he said.

And who will fight the fire till professional help arrives? Prasad said there were 40 home guard jawans on duty at the secretariat and their basic training included blaze battling lessons.

Now, the home truth.

“More than two fire extinguishers were kept near the switch system, but we were not aware of their use. We are not trained and cannot use firefighting gear despite their availability,” a home guard jawan deputed at Project Building said on the condition of anonymity.

Do you know of a government office without fire gear?

Tell ttkhand@abpmail.com