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Playing with fire

  • Published at 11:59 pm April 27th, 2019
Rescuers have an extremely tough job
Rescuers have an extremely tough job / MEHEDI HASAN

Will we ever put safety first?

For over two years, from 2010 to 2012, I worked as a waiter all over London. I worked through agencies and made minimum wage. Many hotels, companies, and organizations in Britain (like other developed countries) hire hospitality and catering staff from agencies. 

Say a five-star hotel has a booking for a wedding where 300 guests will dine together. The hotel has its own limited waitpersons for regular events, but to serve a huge number of guests, they require extra waiting hands. So they hire additional staff from agencies.  

My job in the catering industry, however, took me to a plethora of places. Once, I was sent to Buckingham Palace, which I’d never visited before. Working as a food and wine waiter provides you certain perks to get access into the heart of the palace, where normal visitors wouldn’t be allowed to enter with their tour tickets. 

I had the opportunity to visit a number of other palaces and castles through this catering job, inside and outside of London. My work had me, on several occasions, serve Queen Elizabeth at least twice, her husband Prince Philip once, among many other notable personalities. 

I had also worked in myriad massive luxurious functions, including charity events where scores of filthy rich VIPs and celebrities would turn up to donate thousands of pounds. Working for these events was an eye-opening experience. 

In all these events, there was one mandatory session to attend prior to work -- supervisor briefing. Whenever we were sent to hotels or sporting venues or mega party functions, one thing was sure. Before the work kicked off, all the agency catering staff were rounded up and some manager or supervisor in charge of the event would brief us about our jobs, which would last for about 15 to 30 minutes. 

Then, last but not least, in most places, we would be given a tour through the building, to know about the ins and outs of the worksite in case there was a fire. Every time, we were strictly warned: If the fire alarm sounds, or in case of emergency evacuation, do not try to collect your belongings, just follow the nearest fire exit and gather at the emergency assembly area. 

Why this banal fire safety briefing all the time in all workplaces? Sometimes I wondered. There are fire safety signs literally everywhere in every building in the UK. Everyone knows what to do if anything happens -- proceed to the emergency exit. Maybe British people worry too much, I used to think.

Yes, the fire exit sign. The forever familiar green sign reads the words “fire exit” and shows the way with an arrow comprising the figure of a running man.   

Years later, as I write this, I realize the essence of those briefings I had to go through on fire and safety. 

On March 28, a fire broke out at FR tower in Dhaka’s Banani area. The deadly inferno tore through the 22-storey office building in no time. 

While the blaze burned for several hours, some office workers risked climbing down the exterior of the building, and many who were stuck inside shouted for help from windows. It was a harrowing, nerve-racking scene. Hundreds of people crowded the street in front of the building, but they were of no help.

It took about five hours for fire-fighters to bring the fire under control. At least 26 people perished, and 70 others were injured in the Banani blaze. 

Later, the investigation report revealed that the building lacked fire exits and sprinklers, while the emergency exits on several floors were padlocked. Besides, the five upper floors of the building, according to Rajuk, were added illegally. 

Needless to say that the majority of high-rise buildings in Bangladesh have been constructed flouting the evacuation plan. Just a month before this incident, a fire in Dhaka’s Chawkbazar took over 50 lives. 

There is an idiom in English: Playing with fire. The recent fire incidents across the capital of Bangladesh confirm that we are knee-deep into madness -- we are openly playing with fire. Dhaka, the world’s second least liveable city with its 18 million-plus residents, is booming crazily. Multi-storied buildings are blooming left and right. 

A 2007 fire service survey found one in every five houses in the eight city corporation areas to be terribly risky. The survey also revealed that 90% of buildings have no fire safety arrangements.

What will we call this? Are we not playing with fire?

In the developed nations, no hobos and streeties, even in the freezing cold nights, are spotted making a fire to stay warm. If anyone does that, it is obvious within minutes there will be police cars with a loud siren and the person will get caught, for making a fire in a public place is a criminal offense. 

Conversely, in Bangladesh, making a fire on the streets is extremely common, and some people or kids do it for fun. They gather some polythene, paper, or green waste and set it on fire. No matter these burnings cause smog and breathing trouble to the adjacent building residents. I asked some of these people why they do it. They said it is the best way to get rid of the rubbish. On my asking, “why don’t you give it to the rubbish collector?” they remain silent. But I know the answer. Ray Bradbury’s classic novel Fahrenheit 451 tells it all in the opening line: Burning is a pleasure (The actual line is: It was a pleasure to burn). 

Nothing comes for free. All those developed countries -- they learned from their past experiences and made strict fire regulations to save lives. Take the Great Fire of London in 1666 that burned down nearly the entire city. 

The raging fire blazed for five days and nights. Even the king himself joined the fire-fighters, passing pails of water to douse the flames. When finally it was quelled, only one-fifth of the city remained standing.

Dhaka denizens are decidedly living in a quagmire pertaining to the fire safety of their buildings. Shall we ever learn? How many more hundreds and thousands of lives should be killed to make our concrete jungle a safe abode?

Rahad Abir is a writer. He is finishing his first novel.