A recent report in the Times Of India highlighted yet again the need for schools in Mumbai to meet fire safety norms. ‘Schools Yet To Meet Fire Safety Norms 2 Yrs After Check’ read the self-explanatory headline on the 8th of January 2013. Shockingly, over two years after the fire brigade inspected 812 municipal, aided and private schools in the city on safety measures and found several glaring loopholes and asked for corrective measures, none of the schools has filed a compliance report yet.
Mumbai fire brigade officers said the lacunae pointed out during the inspection following guidelines issued by the Supreme Court and the state government were crucial fpor fire safety and not very difficult for school managements to follow. The Fire brigade notes that in the absence of compliance reports they do not have records of whether their suggestions had been followed.
Let me give you a little backstory here about a tragedy of mammoth proportions that took place on the 16th of July, 2004 and which prompted the Maharashtra government to issue a wake up call to schools all over the state. Over 90 children between eight and 10 years died in a major fire at the Sri Krishna High School inTamil Nadu’s Thanjavur district. 27 other children received serious burns. The fire is said to have started from the kitchen where the noon meal was being prepared and quickly spread to a row of thatched roof classrooms. A disaster which could have been prevented and saved 97 kids from dying a gruesome death. 97 kids who would have gone on to lead productive lives, gotten married, had kids, chased dreams – all snuffed out due to the carelessness and negligence of school authorities who didn’t give a fig or thought about an imminent disaster that could befall the school. This brings me to my pet grouse and something that is curious to the Indian subcontinent – WE WAIT FOR TRAGEDY TO STRIKE FIRST BEFORE BECOMING BETTER PREPARED TO DEAL WITH DISASTER.
Do Not Wait For Tragedy To Strike
This aspect has been on display ever since India became a republic. Safety Norms in Homes, Public Institutions and Transport vehicles is practically non-existent. Which is why India has the highest number of people in the world each year dying in train and bus tragedies and perishing in infernos and fires that rage through old decrepit buildings where people live and work oblivious to the dangers that can befall them at the drop of a hat.
How do fires start?
To understand how you can inculcate fire safety in your precincts we have to understand how a fire starts. The Fire Triangle on the left represents the three elements needed for a fire to develop, namely a fuel which can be ignited by a heat source in the presence of oxygen from the air. Control of the fire is by eliminating one of the three elements. Identifying fire hazards includes recognising the fuel load and whether there are any heat sources present, eg, in kitchens and laboratories.
Where do fires start?
Fire can start anywhere. Accidental fires can start escape routes, since fire safety management should ensure that these are kept clear. Deliberate (arson) fires can be started anywhere, and often in places out of view, both inside and outside the building.
How do fires develop and spread?
When the fire starts in an enclosed space, hot smoke-laden gases will rise to the ceiling and form a layer which will flow under the whole ceiling at first and if not controlled it will then deepen and eventually fill the whole space. This is known as ’smoke-logging’. As the fire grows in area, flames and radiated heat will spread to any combustible materials such as fittings, furniture, exposed papers, etc. The flames will grow in length, increasing in height until they reach the ceiling where they will be deflected horizontally. Heat will then be radiated downwards which accelerates the growth of the fire as other items become involved in the fire leading to full involvement, ie, flashover. If there is little fresh air getting into the space the rate of fire development will slow as there is less oxygen present to keep the fire going. The gases generated will be very toxic and high in carbon monoxide.
This smoke will be irritant, asphyxiant and toxic, causing coughing, streaming eyes and difficulty in breathing. It will also be dense, and will restrict vision rapidly, resulting in disorientation and difficulty in moving away from the fire-affected area. The radiation from the flames once they reach the ceiling will promote fire growth.
Any material which is burning will be hot and will use up the oxygen present and will produce carbon monoxide which will also disorient anyone in the area.
So, a fire starting in a compartment in a building may not only put anyone present in the room of origin at risk from the effects of the combustion products but if uncontrolled it will spread to other parts of the building as well. This could jeopardise the safety of people remote from where the fire started and could also cause damage over a wide area.
Thus schools and apartment buildings should first of all be designed, maintained and managed to reduce fire spread. In the case of Mumbai, most of the reputed and municipal schools have been
constructed hapazardly and without allegiance to fire safety norms. A common refrain among non-compliers is that their school is over 80 years old and there is no way that they can include the structural changes that have been presribed by the fire department. In government aided schools the most repeated complaint is lack of funds. Shortage of funds can indeed pose a problem in maintaining fire-fighting equipment like extinguishers and alarms. Thus it is imperative that funds be immediately allocated by the concerned trusts and owners of private institutions to immediately allocate a substantial resource to meeting fire-safety norms so as to prevent a repeat of the Sri Krishna School tragedy.
Remember a little bit of money and efforts can go a long way in ensuring the safety of children in schools and also ensure the longevity of your institution and your reputation both of which can be seriously dented and damaged in the event of deaths of little children inside your school’s premises.
Smoke movement and its impact on escape
Early on in the fire, the most critical effects on the occupants will be from the smoke and other products of combustion. Smoke is often the first thing to be noticed by the occupants and is generally the cause of the first alarm. In the absence of any strong air currents smoke tends to gather at ceiling level, filling the space from the top down, i.e, smoke logging. Once down to head height people will not be able to see very far because of the density of the smoke and the unpleasant effect on their eyes. Breathing will be difficult, as the carbon dioxide levels increase so the breathing rate goes up and more smoke is taken in which will be increasingly short of oxygen. The effects will be felt very quickly by younger pupils, who breathe quite rapidly anyway; leading to respiratory distress because the smoke is hot and eventually to unconsciousness or death as a result of carbon monoxide poisoning.
Recognition of these circumstances is essential when dealing with different age groups who may be familiar with the building but may not be very mobile for a variety of reasons. Legislative controls are usually cast with adults in mind. Although compliance can be achieved for adult occupants, designers and users of school buildings do need to consider the younger, smaller and shorter pupils at the planning stage to allow everyone, regardless of age, size and disability to leave safely. It is important, therefore, that the escape routes must be protected against smoke penetration and the storey or final exit must be reached before they become untenable. Once visibility has dropped below 10m it will be difficult to move safely to the exits. The time taken will also need to take account of such things as the furniture present and the size of exits and the age and mobility of the occupants. Thus all the right measures must be in place to allow safe egress from any part of the building.
Economic Loss of a School Fire
A major issue with fires in schools is the scale of the property losses. The losses are a significant and constant drain on resources. According to UK government estimates, the average annual cost of school fires was over £ 50 million per year over the last decade. Figures for the losses provided by the insurance industry are even higher.
• Additional costs from insurers requiring more security to prevent repeat incidents.
• Stress will be high, particularly for senior staff.
• Loss of reputation with implications for recruitment and retention of staff as well as pupil applications. In context, schools top the list in terms of fire losses compared to other occupancies.
• Generally educational fire losses were 60 times those of office fires (the occupancy often referred to for future design comparisons). In secondary schools where fires are a frequent occurrence, 43% report a fire occurring in one year with the average loss being £100,000 (CLG Research Bulletin No 10 – Survey of school fires 2006). The cost in terms of lost investment in new and refurbished buildings together with ‘interruption to business’ and the wrecking of pupil’s work and staff resources cannot be overstated. Also note, this is just the direct losses (insurance claims) – the true cost is likely to be even higher.
It is worth considering the kinds of uninsured losses that may occur:
• The hire of temporary accommodation during the rebuild – can be up to five years.
• Additional costs if pupils need to be transported to another school site.
• General disruption, including children’s education.
• Loss of teaching aids which can be significant high in today’s world of Ipads and expensive LED TV’s and other computer systems, servers etc.
• Loss of coursework – which will have to be redone by the pupils.
• Loss of personal items owned by pupils and staff.
• Loss of facilities for the community, eg, for Scouts, Guides, football and other sports
Amit Sen, a commercial pilot by training, has over 15 years experience in the space of corporate investigations, handling Copyright & Trademark infringement cases, Pre – employment verification Industrial Espionage investigations, Asset & Net – Worth assessment assignments and vendor / supplier verification cases, among others. Co-founder of Alliance One Detectives – which is the best private detective agency in Mumbai. Amit has also successfully completed assignments in a wide range of sectors, including the machine tools industry, pharmaceutical industry, hospitality sector, specialized equipment (Oil & natural gas sector, aviation industry etc.), telecom industry & the IT & ITes sectors. These cases have all involved both offline and online investigations.