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Up in flames

  • Published at 12:00 am April 21st, 2019
FR Tower
We cannot afford to forget this mistake MAHMUD HOSSAIN OPU

Everyone has a duty to be aware of fire safety

Another tragic fire incident, on the joyful occasion of Bengali New Year, has forced the entire nation to mull over whether the government is the only party responsible for keeping our people safe.

Statistics show the number of fire incidents in the year 2018 were a daily average of 53. In 2019, within only the first two months, Dhaka witnessed at least seven major fires. Within two days of the Banani fire, four more places had to go through similar infernos on the very same day, including the one at Delta Life Tower at Gulshan-2.

But these incidents should not come as a surprise to the people of Dhaka -- almost 10 years ago, we witnessed the Nimtoli fire incident, still considered the deadliest chemical-fuelled fire in the country, where we witnessed more than 100 casualties. The matter later got lost in the annals of history, and soon everything was eventually forgotten. 

Recent investigations revealed that the unregulated chemical warehouses in Old Dhaka were the main reasons behind the recent Chawkbazar tragedy as well, further cementing that nothing has changed in 10 years.

In 2006, Bangladesh Legal Aid and Services Trust (BLAST) filed a writ petition prompted by the disaster at the factory of KTS Textile and Garments, marking the deaths of 57 workers due to a failure to follow standard building code. 

The High Court had directed the government to explain within four weeks why its failure to establish a government agency as provided under the Bangladesh National Building Code 2006 for enforcement of the law did not constitute a breach of its statutory and constitutional duties.

It also ordered for a statement to be submitted at the court laying out the steps the government had taken to secure the safety of workers since the code became law. However, the current status of the petition is that it is pending for hearing.

BLAST later filed another writ on behalf of the people of Bangladesh after the 2010 Nimtoli incident; and least four more writs were filed based on the Chawkbazar incident later in February 2019, all addressing the same issue: Asking the government to explain why its inaction to relocate the chemical warehouses from Dhaka -- even after getting a clear ruling from the High Court after Nimtoli fire -- should not be declared illegal.

Meanwhile, the question that has recently struck most of the common people is that, despite having several laws for monitoring and enforcing safety at construction sites (such as the building code and The Fire Prevention Act 2003, specifically), why is it still such a big challenge to control fire breakouts.

One apparent reason could be the shortage of manpower at enforcement agencies. But the main problem remains the lack of sincerity and awareness on the part of the citizens themselves: Failure to implement the measures required by the building code on the part of landlords, willingly staying at dangerous areas despite receiving evacuation notices, and building shops here and thereby expressly ignoring the official plans, making it next to impossible for firefighters to reach the affected spot, are major contributing factors in the little to zero development of fire fighting services within the last ten years.

Before constructing any high-rise buildings, the plan needs to get clearance from Bangladesh Fire Service and Civil Defense.

These buildings must have emergency exits with clear signs for common people to understand, efficient ventilation for smoke to escape, and fire detection alarms, and evacuation and fire extinguishment plans. 

Most such buildings do not adhere to the “Fire Drill and Evacuation Procedure” etched out in the Bangladesh National Building Code, which provides guidelines about first aid, firefighting plans, training, and responsibilities of the occupants.

People need to be aware and sincere regarding these rules. Because, at the end of the day, it’s their lives that are at stake.

Sabrina Zarin is a Partner in FM Associates and an advocate of the Supreme Court of Bangladesh.