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Fire catches Presi napping

- Lab escapes with little damage after alarm failure

A small fire in Presidency University’s physics department on Wednesday exposed big flaws in the institution’s fire-fighting preparedness — its alarms don’t work, several labs don’t have sprinklers and there’s been no fire drill yet to test an automatic gas extinguisher.

A short circuit in the UPS (uninterruptible power supply) back-up apparently triggered the fire in the physics laboratory around 4.20pm, damaging a computer and three air-conditioners. The laboratory on the ground floor of the historical Baker Building houses an X-ray diffractometer worth Rs 1.5 crore, among other equipment.

An X-ray diffractometer is a hi-tech, non-destructive machine used to analyse a range of materials in solid form.

Some members of the non-teaching staff were the first to raise an alarm after noticing thick smoke billowing out of the locked room, adjacent to the institution’s IT wing.

One of the employees confirmed that he didn’t hear the fire alarm go off. “The fire alarm should ideally keep ringing at intervals once a fire breaks out but that didn’t happen. We were alerted by the thick smoke that swirled through the corridor. We broke open the locked room and used portable fire extinguishers from various parts of the ground floor to keep the fire from spreading.”

Three fire engines from the Central Avenue fire service station, located off Mohammad Ali Park, arrived soon after to douse the flames.

Dipak Kumar Ghosh, officer-in-charge of the fire station, said the portable fire extinguishers containing dry chemicals weren’t enough to control a blaze. “We don’t know whether the fire alarm was active. Since the room was locked, it got heated quickly. Everyone was relieved to know that the diffractometer had been saved,” he said.

Vice-chancellor Anuradha Lohia said she had heard about the fire alarm not working. “I don’t know what systems had been installed earlier. But we will see to it that proper facilities are installed soon.”

A fire services official who was at the university on Wednesday said not even half the safety steps recommended by the department four years ago had been implemented.

“There are no sprinklers on the ceiling of the physics laboratory. For a room that houses combustible items such as batteries, there should be a ready source of water like sprinklers that get activated the moment the room temperature rises abnormally. We didn’t find any hydrants near the laboratory either,” the official said.

The protocol for an institution with several laboratories is to employ trained fire-fighting personnel and carry out regular drills.

“No student or member of the teaching staff was in the laboratory during the fire on Wednesday. But if somebody were trapped in that room, the university authorities would have had to wait for firemen to arrive and rescue them. It is clearly stated in the fire-safety guidelines that any commercial or educational institution that keeps combustible items should regularly have fire drills,” the official said.

Several teachers said on condition of anonymity that Presidency hadn’t learnt its lessons from the fire that gutted the chemistry laboratory in 2010. “We are exposed to fire threats despite the institution spending Rs 1.5 crore in the name of fire-fighting facilities,” a professor said.

The money had been sanctioned after the Mamata Banerjee government set out to turn Presidency into a “world-class institution”.

A visit to the organic chemistry laboratory where the blaze in 2010 had occurred revealed a sorry tale. The lab for postgraduate students, located on the third floor of Derozio Building, is equipped with an automatic fire extinguisher connected to four cylinders containing gas. The equipment was supposed to be tested in a mock fire situation after installation but the contracted agency never bothered to do so, sources said.

“The agency has got its money and ignored repeated reminders that the equipment must be tested,” said a professor of the chemistry department.

A senior official of the fire services department said Presidency was lucky that Wednesday’s fire occurred in the afternoon. “What if this had happened in the early hours like the blaze in October 2010?”