Burning Dhaka Despite looming danger, fire safety largely absent in urban design and political talks – Abdullah Zobair
Day after the Banani FR Tower fire which tore through the 22-storey building on March 28 leaving at least 27 people killed and around 100 others injured, Housing and Public Works Minister SM Rezaul Karim said all buildings constructed violating rules would be identified within 15 days. Newly elected Dhaka North city corporation mayor said they asked building owners to submit building design and fire safety. On April 19, when this writing was crafting, the media focus shifted to another set of incidents and capitalizing the shifting attention, the promises get weakened and blurred. If we recall the Nimtoli fire, Tazrin Fashion fire, Chwakbazar fire or Gulshan kitchen market fire, we see the government, city corporations or authorities concerned hurriedly made some pledges of ensuring fire safety in buildings, but not a single pledge is ever met. The reality is we learn nothing from the eye-opening fire incidences from slum to the posh building, from industry to hospital, from office to residential blocks. Fire safety measures are largely absent in our urban design, building design, everyday political talks— disastrous indeed.
Fire and Promise
Fire Service and Civil Defense (FSCD) statistics showed that in the last 10 years, at least 16000 fire incidents occurred that killed 1590 people. In almost all incident, the responsible departments and agencies formed probe committees that hardly functioned and made public. In the fire incidents, the immediate response of the government was making some promises, including equipping the Fire Service with state-of-the-art technologies, vehicles, fire extinguishers and training. Let see some fire incidents in the last 10 years and promises made after the incidents.
Bashundhara City Fire: In March 2009, fire gutted six top floors of the 20-storey city’s posh shopping mall-cum office tower Bashundhara City. Since Fire Service and Civil Defence had an only aerial ladder that could not gain access beyond the 13th floor, leaving the firemen helpless to douse the skyscraper. The fire broke out in the shopping mall in August 2016, meaning previous promises were not executed. It was proved that the incapacity and inadequacy of the fire service were exposed in the drill. The government had promised to equip FSCD with vehicles, ladder and fire extinguishing chemicals and sprayers and check fire alarm, fire safety in shopping mall and skyscrapers, though little has done.
Nimtoli Inferno: Hell came down in the city’s old part and burnt 124 lives instantly and leaving 150 more seriously injured on June 3, 2010. The fire gutted eight buildings as chemical warehouses and combustible goods continuously provided fuel of the inferno. The RAJUK (Rajdhani Unnayan Kartripakkha) immediately launched a survey to detect risky building in the old Dhaka while the Dhaka South City Corporation (DSCC) and the government promised to relocate the chemical warehouse to Keraniganj. Since 2013, the DSCC put off renewing trade licences of warehouses in old Dhaka until policy backtracking in last February when the corporation planned to renew license. It was thought that the Nimtoli Tragedy bored many inscriptions, including building awareness on fire and the dangers of storing chemicals in residential buildings, though practically no progress is made, no learning is learnt. The probe committee presented 17-point to make the old city safe and danger-free from such large scale inferno, but no point was executed to trigger the Chawkbazar fire.
After Nimtoli inferno
Food & disaster management minister
“The committee decided to introduce hydrant points all over the country, not only inside buildings, malls and homes, but also at different points on the streets.”
“We will clean off Old Dhaka.” “At least 200 locals will be given basic training on firefighting, first aid and searching for survivors.”
Hell at Tazreen Fashion: On November 24, 2014, we witnessed how negligence and apathy to garment workers remain responsible for high causalities in Ashulia, Savar. In the fire incident, at least 112 workers were killed and more than 300 were injured. After rang of fire alarm, managers and security guards of the factory asked the panicked workers get back to work when smoke was billowing from the building that ultimately raised the death number. The reasons behind this are bad workmanship of factory buildings, an inadequate number of exits, closure of gates, lack of safety measures, narrow road obstructing fire service operation and lack of rescue equipment. The factory owners make their factories without safety measures and keep doors locked during a fire. The heart-wrenching factory fire later pushed the RMG sector to go under retrofitting factory for complying fire safety and workplace safety.
Chawkbazar Tragedy: Fire engulfed entire Churihatta of Chawkbazar of old Dhaka as flammable chemical warehouse housed in the the most building in the area on 25 February 2019. The deadly fire charred 70 people and injured many. The tragedy is the simple repetition of the Nimtoli carnage due to bureaucratic tangle, political loggerheads, the greed of building owners, poor urban design including, narrow lane and unavailability of nearby water source and definitely for not executing the learning from Nimtoli fire. If the government executed the recommendation made after the Nimtoli fire, the Chwakbazar tragedy could be avoided.
FR Tower Fire: The FR Tower Fire broke out on the eighth floor of the 22-storey building at the commercial Banani area on 28 March 2019 killing 26 people and injuring more than 70 others. The tower had no permission for its top four floors and there was no fire-protected staircase in the 22-storey building that houses dozens of offices. The FSCD repeatedly warned the tower owner to comply with fire safety but their indifference put off lives and livelihood of many.
Source: FSCD dataset
Fire Safety in Dhaka: A big picture
A 2017 FSCD survey found only 129 out of 3,786 establishments in Dhaka city as “Risky” or “Extremely Risky”. The survey found none of the buildings built before 2006 have the things necessary for fire protection because the Bangladesh National Building Code is yet to come into effect. Additionally, a 2004 research article revealed that Tejgaon Industrial Area, Fulbaria and Postogola were the most hazardous areas in the city to live in, having more than 30 fire incidents annually. The next-worst areas were found to be Jatrabari, Sadarghat, Shakhari Bazar, Waizghat, Simpson Road, New Market and Mirpur-1. In 2012, students from BUET assessed 153 chemical warehouses on Armanitola road for fire risk. All the chemical warehouses studied showed that the number of chemicals stored exceeded the amount allowed by building code. Worse yet, they found that of the warehouses, 17 per cent had chemicals that would ignite almost immediately — similar to what had been observed in Chawkbazaar. Similarly, in 2015, a study report showed less than half of the buildings in Islambagh are vulnerable to fire. Besides, 71 per cent of the streets in Dhaka are too narrow for fire engines to pass through. Fire hazards became more complex due to dense building concentrations, narrow roads, flammable materials, poor water supply, abrupt electrical wires and chemical factories in residential areas, as well as the lack of preparedness.
A BUET study found only two hospitals and two hotels fully complied with fire safety measures out of 53 high-rises surveyed. Currently, there are about 4,000 high-rises in Dhaka, mostly in the new parts and the posh areas of the capital. Another study conducted by BRAC Institute of Governance and Development titled “Housing in Dhaka” revealed that 95 per cent of the respondents informed that they have no fire exit in their building, where they work or live.
A RAJUK survey conducted between January and August last year found that less than one out of 10 buildings in Rampura, Motijheel, Khilgaon, Mirpur, Mohammadpur, Pallabi and Dhanmondi is built as per the specification of their designs approved by the city development authority. Rajuk surveyed at least 2.04 lakh buildings, which are three-storey or more, on its 1,528 sqkm area jurisdiction. The FR Tower was one of those buildings. Its emergency staircase was narrower than what was required and floors from 19th to 22nd were built without RAJUK permission.
Fire safety is highly ignored in most urban and building design as the city virtually expanded without any plan. Many architects have not come to terms with the design requirement for fire safety of enclosing a staircase, as otherwise the same will become a vertical chimney and attack all the floors, the upper ones first and then gradually working downwards, ultimately engulfing the entire building in deadly smoke, and if combustible materials are available by fire. The architects are responsible for the fire safety layout, traffic, density, population, and organisation of the whole as well as for each individual building involved. The residential buildings of Dhaka city are made of mainly RCC structure which are non-combustible and retain strength when burnt by normal flame temperature. As of today, no Bangladeshi building made of RCC collapsed after a fire incident. Theoretically, every large building must itself be a self-sufficient Fire Station equipped with detection, alarm, means of escape, extinguishers, sprinklers, water, foam and carbon dioxide (if required), and trained manpower with a Fire Marshall/Supervisor on each floor. Tall buildings must have a Refuge Cell on each floor, where people will take shelter before rescue forces can reach them for safe evacuation after dousing the fire. But the situation is too drastic and horrible appeared in the BIGD study.
Urban planner stressed for connected the city with water and set up fire hydrant at every 300 meters. Data shows that there are large parts of Dhaka where the fire engines cannot even reach in 15 minutes. The southern-most parts of the city were mostly covered by some fire-station or the other, but everywhere else in the city large areas remain uncovered. Traffic jam is a big problem when fighting the Banani FR tower fire. The fireman adds that the traffic hindered the movement of the vehicles, including the water trucks and ambulances that had to do multiple trips.
While our firefighting abilities have gone up, not much has changed in the fire hazard awareness aspect among the general populace. People still lack the basic ideas of what constitutes a fire hazard, as well as what to do if a fire breaks out. At least one person from every family should have basic training while the FSCD should expand mandatory fire drill in educational institutions, shopping malls, offices and residential apartments. The urban designers and architect should also consider fire safety while making any design. Nevertheless, the building owners must check his greed to make money from spaces, renting space for combusting goods and occupying fire exit or removing fire staircase for profiting.
Abdullah Zobair is a teacher, journalist and social researcher. Follow him @azobair