A few points to consider when it comes to fire safety.

Lack of deaths is no reason to ignore lessons from Chennai Silks fire
Voices Fire Tuesday, June 06, 2017 - 18:05

“No one was killed” is a line that many of us find comforting when we read reports of fire mishaps.  But think about it – it lulls us and, as a result, governing authorities into a false sense of complacency.

The recent fire at the Chennai Silks showroom at T Nagar in Chennai is a classic example. “No casualty, mercifully,” but the losses amounted to a whopping Rs 420 crore, reported several media. And this estimate is reportedly only the value of damaged goods and other ‘direct losses’. For starters, even if we take the average cost of a silk saree to be Rs 1000, we just witnessed 40 lakh silk sarees turn to ashes. Put another way, it is a square meal that could have fed 1.3 crore people for a day, assuming Rs 150 for a person’s meal.

But the question is, is loss in a fire or a mishap only confined to property damage? What about what happens to business owners and their families, whose sole source of income came from that shop and trade? How about the loss to the community? What about the impact on the environment due to not only pollution from the fire but also the debris? What about the image of T Nagar as a key commercial area? Lives may have been saved but were we able to save livelihoods?

Could the Chennai Silks building fire have been prevented? The answer is an emphatic ‘yes’. Here are a few points to consider:

1. The working fire protection system in this building would not have cost the owners 1% of the loss incurred. Various media from Tamil Nadu have reported that there were more than 100 tankers summoned to the spot that supplied water to douse the fire. Assuming each tanker had a capacity of 4000 litres, fire engines ended up spraying more than 4 lakh litres of water from outside, leading to the weakening of the building.

2. An automatic sprinkler system (mini firefighter hanging from the ceiling, waiting to sprinkle water on flames) installed in the building would have controlled the fire, limiting its spread, with each sprinkler covering approximately a 10 sq meter area. The blaze could have easily been contained with only a few hundred litres of water.

The automatic sprinklers can do wonders provided you maintain them and give them water. They are even more very useful in cases where the streets are narrow and fire engines take time to come. Instead of this two-day blaze that it turned into, this disaster could have been averted.

Are there lessons we can learn from this unfortunate incident for the other buildings on the same street?

According to official stats, Tamil Nadu Fire & Rescue Service (TNFRS) received 25,897 fire calls in 2016. Out of this more than 600 were for ‘medium’ to ‘serious’ fires. The TNFRS reports that the number of fire engine turnout is more. Adherence to the three pillars of National Building Code, 2016 – Fire Prevention, Life Safety and Fire Protection can help in preventing such disasters. And an investment into correctly designed, installed and maintained fire protection system (automatic sprinklers) can avert the disaster and we can save the national losses from fire which are most times not seen or reported. The societal cost of fire is far larger than just property damage and hence, we have an obligation in preventing such losses.

Sumit Khanna is International Codes & Standard Consultant with FM Global. He is also on the Executive council of Beyond Carlton (www.beyondcarlton.org ) India's first citizen-initiative to make people fire-aware and prevent fire tragedies.




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