Mumbai’s highrises are not fire-safe. Here’s why.

A fire in a 61-storey building has sparked debate on firefighting mechanisms in highrise buildings. Who is responsible for this?

On October 22nd, a fire broke out on the 19th floor of One Avighna Park, Curry Road, a 61 storey building. Arun Tiwari, a 30-year-old security guard, plunged to his death while trying to escape the fire. The incident has incited panic among residents of skyscrapers, especially those staying in the top floors. A fire brigade enquiry, conducted right after the incident, revealed that a short circuit caused the fire, and despite fire safety measures in place, slow water pressure ultimately impacted the fire fighting mechanisms in the building. Alteration work overseen by a resident on the 19th floor greatly influenced the severity of the fire. 

Mumbai city has some of the tallest skyscrapers in the country. It is estimated that the city has more than 50 skyscrapers, including the Avighna Tower, the location of the fire. This is not including the many skyscrapers that are still being constructed to cater to the rising demand for residential and commercial space in Mumbai. 

Mumbai chief fire officer Hemant Parab says that the city’s latest equipment, its hydraulic platforms, can reach a maximum of 90 meters and roughly 30 floors, calculated at an estimated 3 m per floor. Practically, the reach could be lower than 30 floors since such highrises usually have tall podiums and multi-storied parking lots.

Currently, Mumbai has only two hydraulic platforms, each stationed at Byculla and Borivali fire stations. It is unclear where a platform will be sent in case there are more than two fires in highrises in a single day. Mumbai has about 20 such equipment meant specifically for fires in high rise buildings including ten aerial ladder platforms and six turntable ladders, meant specifically to douse fires in high risers. This equipment varies in their capacity to reach heights between 32 metres to 81 meters. 

However, the city already has various skyscrapers which have almost 80 floors, which is way beyond the 90 m reaching capacity of the fire brigade equipment. 

mumbai skyline
Mumbai skyline | Source: Wikicommons

To reach higher floors, the fire brigade is considering deploying drones for firefighting.

“I would love to deploy something like that if someone comes forward and demonstrates it to us. But, as of now, this is just an idea,” Hemant says.

On July 18, 2014, when the 21st floor of the 22-storied Lotus Business Park in Andheri caught fire, Coast Guard and Naval choppers were used for evacuating people to safety. 

“We can summon the defence choppers during an emergency but only in exceptional cases,” Hemant says. Currently, there is no proposal to bring in or use helicopters by the BMC, Asia’s richest municipal corporation, to fight fires, the way it is done in other countries.

“The BMC earns a huge revenue merely by sanctioning building projects by charging various premiums. If after collecting it all, it says that it’s the developers’ responsibility to fight fires, then it clearly reflects on the intent of the BMC as merely a revenue generation body rather than saving lives of people and serving the public need,” says Varun Singh, founder of SquareFeatIndia, a real estate news portal and YouTube channel. 

Fire fighting is an obligatory function of the BMC

Fire fighting is an obligatory duty for the BMC, as per the Maharashtra Fire Prevention and Life Safety Measures Act, 2006 . “A building is granted Occupation Certificates (OC) and Completion Certificate (CC) only if they fulfill or meet the set mandatory criteria including that of putting up a fire fighting mechanism in place,” explains Vinod Chitore, chief engineer of the BMC’s development plan department. 

Hemant Parab asserts that it is the responsibility of the owners and/or occupiers of the building to handle fire fighting mechanisms in their buildings. As per norms, the builder has to mandatorily install fire safety systems in buildings, and has to ensure that these fire systems are well-maintained and kept functional by conducting a fire safety audit every six months via an approved fire licenced agency and submit the reports. 

Architect and housing activist Chandrashekhar Prabhu asks how Mumbai can be compared to cities in other countries, when firefighting systems here are put in place only to gather permissions for development. “Once the builder is done with selling most of the flats, most buildings fail to bother maintaining the fire fighting infrastructure. So, eventually when a fire does break, it’s left back to the fire brigade to intervene and fight the fire,” he says. 

What happens if a building fails to maintain its fire safety mechanism? 

In the event that a developer or housing society fails to maintain its fire safety infrastructure, then the fire brigade can take legal action against them and even penalise them by disconnecting their water or electricity supplies. Residents can also complain to the regional fire brigade office and demand action. If a resident is found to have carried out alteration work which could potentially endanger the lives of others in the building, then complaints of this kind can also be forwarded to the fire station.

Read more: BMC’s desperate attempts to get occupants out of collapsing buildings

While these regulations exist on paper, the reality on the ground is that the Mumbai fire brigade is short of manpower and doesn’t generally chase offenders. “The fire brigade does serve notices  but does not always follow-up due to paucity of manpower. The Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC) too serves notices on buildings under the Maharashtra Regional Town Planning Act (MRTP) if found to flounder on fire safety norms, like not allocating free refuge areas or not keeping fire exit stairs free etc,” says Varun Singh. 

Niranjan Hiranandani, vice chairman of National Real Estate Development Council (NAREDCO), feels that fire safety is everyone’s responsibility. “Whoever is found guilty in an enquiry needs to be held liable rather than issuing blanket liabilities. Like in the case of the Avighna Park towers, the resident who did the alterations leading to malfunctioning of the fire systems, needs to be held liable. The builder had done his part by installing the mechanism and even conducting mock drills,” Niranjan says.

When asked if it was right for Mumbai to allow high rise buildings without necessary fire fighting infrastructure in place, he said, “Fire fighting in skyscrapers is always done with the help of internal mechanisms. Tall ladders cannot go beyond a point. This is how it happens even internationally in countries like Singapore, Canada, United Kingdom, Hong Kong or Dubai.” 

“Ultimately it is the people’s responsibility. They are the ones who keep buying flats in top floors despite being aware that there is no mechanism in place to save them in case of a fire there,” Chandrashekhar Prabhu says.

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