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Highrise low on fire safety
Blaze bares basics ignored in building

In case of fire, press panic button!

The fire brigade’s struggle to reach the smouldering 15th floor of Chatterjee International on Tuesday set off the alarm in a city that boasts much taller buildings than the one towering over the Chowringhee skyline since the late 1970s.

According to fire department officials, the highest a fireman can reach from outside is 70m, about the height of 20 floors or three storeys short of the 23 at Chatterjee International.

The fire department’s skylift — a truck-mounted hydraulic platform used during highrise fires — was procured after the blaze at Nandram market complex in Burrabazar six years ago but its reach is limited to the 20th floor.

The city has several buildings, such as South City in south Calcutta, that have more than 30 floors.

“No fire department in the world has a ladder that can reach beyond 100m… or stretch up to 30 floors. In New Town, buildings having 60 floors or more floors are coming up,” said a fire officer.

Reach is not the only limitation of a skylift. Firefighters needed almost 70 minutes to drive down from a Salt Lake fire station, where it was parked, to Chatterjee International on Tuesday.

A similar delay during the Stephen Court fire in 2010 cost several lives because many people jumped to their death — unable to bear the heat and smoke of the inferno. Officials had decided then that the skylift would be stationed at a central location but Calcutta police and the fire department have yet to find a suitable parking spot for it.

towering inferno

Experts said the problem with Chatterjee International on Chowringhee Road was not its height but the lack of smoke detectors, fire alarms and water sprinklers — though the building had undergone extensive repairs over the past several years. The building did not have professional firefighters and no drills were carried out either.

The building authorities couldn’t present a logbook to the fire officers listing the dates on which drills were carried out, raising questions on how the highrise managed to get its annual safety certificate from the fire department.

“This means, fire inspectors never visited the place and bothered to check if any fire-fighting equipment was present and working,” said an officer.

It is mandatory for a commercial establishment to get a no-objection certificate (NOC) from the fire department every year.

A similar story had unfolded after the fire at AMRI hospitals in 2011 that killed 91 people. Investigators found that the fire department had kept issuing NOCs to the Dhakuria hospital year after year without carrying out any checks.

Fortunately, nobody died in Tuesday’s incident but the situation could have been different if the fire had broken out a few hours later. A conservative estimate says the building hosts over 6,000 people during peak business hours.

“The fire was unfortunate… thankfully, it was contained and there was no casualty. The fire-fighting system worked,” said Gaurav Swaroop, the president of the Chatterjee International Center Society and the managing director of Paharpur Cooling Towers.

Javed Ahmed Khan, the fire and emergency services minister, said his department follows all fire safety protocols before issuing and renewing NOCs. “Our men did an excellent job on Tuesday. The department is equipped to handle all types of fires,” he said.

The building has a water reservoir and hydrants on all floors, but it lacked professional firefighters on its rolls and no drills were carried out either. “Gadgets alone cannot save the day. Mere installation of a fire-fighting mechanism is not enough. It is the duty of a building’s occupants to ensure timely checks… if the mechanism is working or not,” said an officer.

An expert said regular fire drills should be conducted so that personnel know their specific responsibilities during a crisis. “On Tuesday, workmen realised late that hydrants for carrying water to the upper floors were useless in the absence of power,” he said.

“Buildings built before 1996 don’t have open spaces required for movement of fire engines, personnel and equipment. Most of them lack water reservoirs, smoke detectors and sprinklers… all mandatory for establishments, nowadays.”