A few months back, I had written a report on the 2011 AMRI hospital fire mishap. And now, déjà vu it is, to be reading about another fire, in another hospital.
Ruminating-white-khadi-guy (probably on dope and on national news TV debate): “Bhaijaan! That happened in another state! Makes a lot of difference!”
Aam Janta: Yeah, right.
Somehow, our administration, policy makers and law enforcement agencies take the statement “History always repeats itself” quite literally to their heart. The sequence of events will be the same. There will be smoke, stirring up the hornet’s nest, the much loved blame game, extensive media coverage, certain policy changes that look like a big deal, epidemic-like calmness and then amnesia about the incident, and the same old shit happens again!
There were 22 dead and around 120 injured in a major fire at SUM Hospital in Bhubaneshwar on Monday evening. The Odisha CM pays a visit to the recovering patients in AIIMS and AMRI hospitals in Bhubaneshwar itself. He calls it “very tragic” and as protocol always demands, orders an inquiry. He also mentions that the Odisha State Government will take care of the victim arrangements PM Modi expresses his anguish. Many others open their mouth and let out similar diarrheas, reassurances and actions that cannot get back those lives lost. Lives that had come to the hospital with the hopes of getting back home hale and hearty.
The fire was spotted first in the dialysis unit on the first floor of the hospital. Patients’ relatives state that hospital staff tried to douse the fire with just two fire extinguishers for almost 20 minutes, and only when the situation blew out of control did they call in the fire brigade.
In these 20 minutes, smoke had already spread to different sections of the hospital through the air conditioning ducts and false ceiling. One particular relative has even alleged that the hospital staff kept reassuring them that there was no need to relocate the patient. However, when the smoke became suffocating, the same reassuring staff fled the spot, leaving the relative to fend for himself and his patient.
After six fire engines, three hours, a couple of broken windows for the slings, and a skylift, the blaze was finally under control.
If initial reports are to be believed, short-circuit was believed to have caused the fire (Short-circuit is our back up man. When everything else fails, make him the scapegoat, and he’ll handle the rest, so to speak.) Yet, the State government has apparently ordered a probe to find out what exactly went wrong.
To silence the furor, three SUM hospital employees, probably electricians, were suspended, because… Why not?
It is not like we do not have fire safety norms. We also have a National Building Code of India that has specific guidelines as to how can one make a building as fireproof as possible.
The ‘part 4’ of ‘National Building Code of India – 2005’ on ‘Fire & Life Safety’ covers the requirements for fire prevention & life safety in relation to fire and fire protection of buildings. The Code specifies construction, occupancy and protection features that are necessary to minimize danger to life and property from fire.
Buildings on the basis of occupancies have been divided into different groups in the chapter. Hospitals have been classified as sub-division C-1 under Group C for Institutional Buildings with some specific requirements applicable for this category in addition to the general requirements common for all occupancies.
The specific requirements for hospitals, in addition to the general requirements common to all buildings, as per NBC are:
• In buildings or sections occupied by bed-ridden patients where the floor area is over 280 m2, facilities shall be provided to move patients in hospital beds to the other side of a smoke barrier from any part of such building or section not directly served by approved horizontal exits or exits from the first floor (floor 2) of a building to the outside.
• Not less than two exits of one or more of the following types shall be provided for every floor, including basement, of every building or section:
a) Doors leading directly outside the building;
d) Horizontal exits; and
e) Fire tower.
• All required exits that serve as egress from hospital or infirmary sections shall be not less than 2 m in clear width including patient bedroom doors to permit transportation of patients on beds, litters, or mattresses. The minimum width of corridors serving patients bedrooms in buildings shall be 2400 mm. For detailed information on recommendations for buildings and facilities for the physically handicapped, reference may be made to good practice [4(27)].
• Elevators constitute a desirable supplementary facility, but are not counted as required exits. Patient lifts shall also be provided with enough room for transporting a stretcher trolley.
• Any area exceeding 500 m2 shall be divided into compartments by fire resistant walls. Doors in fire resistant walls shall be so installed that these may normally be kept in open position, but will close automatically. Corridor door openings in smoke barriers shall be not less than 2000 mm in width. Provision shall also be made for double swing single/double leaf type door.
• No combustible material of any kind shall be stored or used in any building or section thereof used for institutional occupancy, except as necessary to normal occupancy and use of the building.
• Bare minimum quantities of flammable material such as chloroform, ethyl alcohol, spirit, etc. shall be allowed to be stored and handled. The handling of such liquids shall not be permitted by un-authorized persons. Bulk storage of these items, will be governed by relevant rules and safe practices.
Exceptions and Deviations:
It is recognized that in institutions or part of buildings housing various types of psychiatric patients, or used as penal and mental institutions, it is necessary to maintain locked doors and barred windows; and to such extent the necessary provision in other sections of the Code requiring the keeping of exits unlocked may be waived. It is also recognized that certain type of psychiatric patients are not capable of seeking safety without adequate guidance. In buildings where this situation prevails, reliable means for the rapid release of occupants shall be provided, such as remote control of locks, or by keying all locks to keys commonly used by attendants.
While doing a clerkship in a well-known hospital in New York, I happened to witness one of their fire drills. Any kind of fire emergency is termed as a “Code Red’. All doors to that section of the building where the fire has originated, are shut, cordoning off that area. Doors to all patients in the unaffected areas are locked. Only the emergency stairs and service lifts are operational. One cannot experience that level of precision in our hospitals. But the least we can expect is the strict adherence to the rules and regulations laid down in NBC, and harsh punishments on flouting any of them; because we cannot toy with human lives.
In spite of all this, India is world famous for our “chalta hai” attitude. If there are rules, we have to break them. If the flight attendant has asked us to remain seated until the indicator sign goes off, *fish* them. It is like we are shouting out loud to the world, “It is our fundamental right to flout rules, and if you deny us of that happiness, it is a direct violation of human rights.”
Hoping that there are no more déjà vus… Hoping against all hope that there won’t be any more such mishaps in hospitals, acting as a death warrant for those who came there pleading for a new lease of life.
And that’s it. *mic drop*