Tuesday, May 28, 2024

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বাংলা
Dhaka Tribune

Preventing the next disaster

Strengthening fire safety in Bangladesh

Update : 08 Apr 2024, 10:05 AM

 

The escalation of fire incidents happening in urban Dhaka is a wake-up call for the people of Bangladesh. The destructions and ramifications of fire hazards, which entail insurmountable sorrows for the loved ones of the victims, are some of the most harrowing and emotional stories that could ever exist. So the questions that haunt our subconscious are why is this happening? And what could be done to prevent all of these? We all know the universal proverb, which prudently fits this glaring issue of adopting preventive maneuvers without dwelling on the cure.

If we emphasize on the preventive tactics, then we must put the regulatory framework and its efficacies to the fore. The government of the People's Republic of Bangladesh has, throughout the years, adopted numerous compliance and safety regulations. But unfortunately, most of the legislation is unheeded due to the unwillingness of civilians to comply with the standards. But the government must ramp up supervision and prompt enforcement of these compliance legislatures as well as adopt punitive measures against deliberate non-compliance perpetrators so that unforeseen fire incidents, such as the recent fire occurrence on Bailey Road, can be prevented for good. The Supreme Court promptly intervened and asked for explanations from appropriate authorities, but no plausible explanation was given. However, heightened regulatory measures were adopted after each fire incident in the country.

When it comes to compliance legislation, the “Bangladesh National Building Code 2020” (BNBC) can be considered with formidable force. BNBC was amended several times to accommodate the escalating needs for the prevention of fire hazards. The fourth part of this code contains general provisions relating to fire protection (Chapter 1). The second part delves into the precautionary measures for mitigating unwanted fire hazards (Chapter 2). The provisions for safe evacuations of civilians during fire mishaps are enshrined in Chapter 3 of the Code.

BNBC has some specific preventive rules that contribute immensely to eradicating unforeseen dangers unfolding from fire mishaps. Some of those pertinent safety provisions include construction of fire-resistant infrastructures under Part iii of the code. The construction of an autonomous fire detection and alarm system for spontaneous detection of unwanted fire hazards is illustrated in Part IV, Chapter 3 of the Act.

Moreover, Part IV, Chapter 3, of the Code also signifies that methods of safe evacuation or escape must be constructed in the buildings. For instance, staircases, corridors, and exit routes must be built into every piece of infrastructure. Chapter IV of this part also recommends that all buildings mandatorily install firefighting equipment. For instance, fire extinguishers, fire hoses, sprinkler systems, etc. Another crucial fire-fighting equipment that must be installed alongside the others mentioned before is the digital smoke management system, which must consist of smoke ventilation, exhaust fans, smoke spreading control mechanisms, and, lastly, pressurization chambers for controlling hazardous fumes.

Finally, the building owners and the occupants must always conduct frequent fire drills and training sessions to ensure that the people are well aware of the necessary protocols. This provision is codified under Part 4, Chapter 1, Appendix B of the said act. Another compliance regulation that is often underestimated is the mandate of the “Fire Prevention and Extinguishing Act 2003,” hereinafter the Act of 2003, and the “Fire Prevention and Extinction Rules 2014,” hereinafter the Rules of 2014. Section 7 of the Act of 2003 prescribes that the blueprint of the multi-story building must be authorized by the DG of Fire Service and Civil Design, and the latter rule supplements that it is mandatory for the occupants to issue an occupancy certificate prior to construction. All of these compliance laws are incorporated to tackle unwanted fire mishaps.

Despite the existence of statutory rules that work towards the mitigation of fire hazards, there is a tendency to overlook the compliance laws. Firstly, BNBC 2020 has a mandate for the creation of the Bangladesh National Building Code Authority and the establishment of local offices that have not yet been implemented.

Additionally, the recent exemptions of 10 storied buildings from safety protocols further exacerbate the non-compliance tendencies. Lastly, BNBC encourages the public to participate in frequent drilling exercises, but people are disinclined to engage in such activities. Moreover, building owners frequent disregard for complying with safety provisions is paving the way for prospective fire mishaps. 

If we consider international law, it also mandates specific rules pertaining to fire safety. For instance, the International Maritime Organization (IMO) prescribes rules relating to international shipping vessels and maritime safety. One such convention that incorporates this context is the International Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea (SOLAS).

Moreover, the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO), an international organization working under the mandate of the UN, talks about fire safety in the civil aviation sector. One such compliance regulation is Annex 16 to the Convention on International Civil Aviation (ICAO). The International Labor Organization (ILO) also incorporated several safety standards for mitigating fire related occupational hazards. One such convention is the Occupational Safety and Health Convention.

The International Code Council (ICC) has adopted several international standards on international building codes that extensively talk about fire safety provisions. Although not technically legislation, it acts as a reference for developing states to modify their building standards according to the ICC. Sometimes International Trade Agreements also recognizes some safety standards prior to execution of international contract pertaining to building materials, electrical appliances, etc. So Bangladesh being an active state party to all of those above conventions and international organizations denotes that it has an obligation  to implement the safety procedures that these international organizations impose. But unfortunately, the international mandates are mostly unheeded and seldom implemented.

If we consider the global position for fire risk resilience, Singapore has taken the first position in the FM Global Resilience Index 2019; on the contrary, Bangladesh ranked in the bottom positions in terms of fire risk quality. So we can surmise that the fire safety conditions from an international standpoint are rather dwindling, which is extremely concerning for the fire safety resilience of the country.

If we consider global statutory frameworks for fire safety rules, Singapore has strong building codes that emphasize fire suppression systems, public education, and compliance. Japan is globally renowned for its stringent enforcement of fire safety regulations, which cover material restrictions and focus largely on fire drills and public awareness. Australia is recognized for its comprehensive building codes and focuses largely on safety engineering principles. Lastly, Germany concentrates on preventive fire safety measures with compliance rules for building designs and regular safety inspections by regulatory bodies.

In conclusion, the malevolent impact of fire hazards needs no specificity, nor does it require any demonstration. Since the impacts of fire accidents are excruciating, they require distinctive attention from both the government and civilians. Bangladesh is envisaging some of the worst forms of fire accidents lately. What needs to be done is to assess the enforcement mechanisms and make the regulations more stringent.

The government must transform BNBC drastically and make compliance factors for building construction legally binding. Regular drives by mobile courts and regulatory authorities, along with prompt enforcement of punitive measures, should become the norm instead of an infrequent practice triggered only after nerve shaking accidents. RAJUK and municipal authorities, fire safety departments, law enforcement agencies, national and international agencies, and NGO’s must work holistically towards fire hazard mitigation. Moreover, the judiciary should play a vital role in raising public awareness.

Regularly, “Public Interest Litigations” (PIL) in the form of writ petitions should be filed against willful violators of building codes. Additionally, national fire safety regulations should be regularly modified for maximum compliance with the least number of fatalities. International organizations like the International Association of Fire and Rescue Services (IAFRS) should collaborate with the government of Bangladesh, and regular seminars and awareness generation for fire prevention must be held frequently. Only compliance with laws and mass awareness can effectively prevent future fire predicaments and the unfortunate demise of meritorious souls.

Samiur Rahman is a Lecturer at the Department of Law, Bangladesh University.

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