Playing with fireAfter the 2015 earthquake, the safety of high-rise buildings has once again become a matter of public concern. But this time around, the concern emanates not from the possibility of an earthquake, but that of a fire.
After the 2015 earthquake, the safety of high-rise buildings has once again become a matter of public concern. But this time around, the concern emanates not from the possibility of an earthquake, but that of a fire.
It is certainly not a pleasant thought to imagine being trapped in one of the upper floors of a high-rise building in which fire is spreading rapidly. But last week’s fire in Grenfell Tower, a 24-storey tower block of public housing flats in west London, has aroused similar anxieties. The incident has rightly raised questions about the chances of a fire in Kathmandu’s high-rise
buildings and the ability of the Kathmandu Fire Brigade (KFB) to contain one. It took about 24 hours to control the London inferno, which has already claimed around 80 lives. The death toll is expected to cross 100.
If a prosperous and well-managed city like London could suffer such a loss from a fire, it can be argued that Kathmandu will sustain far greater destruction in the event of a similar accident. There have been a number of cases of fire in the Kathmandu Valley. In May last year, three people lost their lives in Lalitpur when a gas cylinder exploded. The same year, a child was killed when a fire broke out in Kalimati. Explosions of sub-standard gas cylinders, poor wiring, careless smoking or burning of candles are some common causes of fire.
As such, the possibility of one of Kathmandu’s high-rise buildings catching fire cannot be too negligible to be ignored. Many of these buildings are taller than 10 storeys, the maximum height the KFB’s fire engines can reach. It is also questionable if the safety guidelines for high-rise buildings, such as adequate and functional fire extinguishers, fire hydrant systems, an emergency evacuation system that includes staircases at the sides, parking spaces for fire trucks, three metres of open space around the buildings, etc, have been followed. There is little monitoring and enforcement of such safety standards.
What makes the scenario more alarming is that the KFB is extremely poorly equipped and has a severe shortage of trained firefighters. The fire bureau has only 27 firefighters and not all of them are trained. The KFB’s chief openly admits that there is little it will be able to do if a fire similar to the one in London breaks out in Kathmandu. Moreover, the city’s narrow roads and frustrating traffic jams prevent fire engines from arriving at a fire site quickly.
Such glaring shortcomings make it tough to stop a fire incident in Kathmandu’s high-rise buildings from becoming a catastrophe. The government, concerned authorities and building owners must make every possible effort to prevent buildings from being tinderboxes.