Is the building you are standing in now, fire-safe?

The Tamil Nadu Fire and Rescue Services has a detailed set of norms that buildings of different types and usage should comply with, in order to ensure fire safety and disaster preparedness. Is Chennai aware?

What started as a happy celebration ended in a terrible tragedy at ‘1 above’ restaurant located in the reputed Kamala Mills Complex, Mumbai on December 29, 2017. The fire that broke out at the resto-bar claimed the lives of 14 people and left several others injured. Since then, a spate of other fire accidents have been reported from Mumbai and cities across India, highlighting more often than not the alarming and abysmal state of fire safety preparedness in our cities.

Fire accidents can happen anytime, anywhere. It was not too long ago that Chennaites witnessed the seven-storeyed building of The Chennai Silks on Usman Road in T.Nagar succumbing to devastating flames. On May 31, 2017, around 150 fire rescuers had to fight for more than 12 hours to put off the fire that broke out in the basement and spread to the successive floors.

In yet another incident that dates back to 2008, Saravana Stores, in the same neighbourhood, was ravaged by fire. Following that incident, the Tamil Nadu Fire and Rescue Services (TNFRS) had conducted a safety audit in the commercial neighbourhood which showed that almost 150 buildings had flouted safety norms.

But what are these norms, in the first place? Do we know, or even try to find out, whether the spaces that we inhabit and visit everyday conform to the basic fire safety guidelines laid out by the competent authorities? Or are we merely waiting for tragedy to strike closer home?

Let us not wait till it is too late to inform ourselves. Here are the basic provisions listed by the Tamil Nadu Fire and Rescue Services (TNFRS) to prevent fire accidents. These provisions must be in place in every building, regardless of the type and purpose, if we want to prepare ourselves to avert disaster and also deal effectively with emergency contingencies.    

Fire protection provision

Essentially, there are two kinds of fire protection put forth by TNFRS—active and passive defence.

Active defence lists the equipment required to put off a fire immediately; this consists of fire extinguishers, automatic sprinkler system, terrace level overhead tank etc.

Passive defence is comprised of design elements such as staircase, side set back area, exit signage etc. all of which can safeguard the lives of people in the event of a fire accident.

Active defence provisions

  • Fire extinguisher: A minimum of two fire extinguishers is required to be in place in the buildings.
  • Automatic sprinkler system: It is a bulb-like device that starts spraying water when the heat shatters the bulb. Sprinklers are mandatory wherever the basement area exceeds 200 sq m.
  • Terrace level over-head tank: In the case of basement having the sprinkler system, a terrace level overhead tank is mandatory; the water capacity of such tank varies from one building to another.

For buildings that fall under certain categories, for example, dormitories with 60m height, hotels exceeding 1000 sq m and some others, there are certain additional precautionary methods that have to be in place. These include:

  • Underground water tank: In addition to the basic provisions, an underground water tank should be in place with a connection to a water supply source. The capacity of the tank, however, varies as per the type of buildings.
  • Hose reel assembly: A hose reel covering all the floors in the building must be installed.
  • Fire pump: A fire pump connected to the water supply source is needed if the basement is sprinklered. It is a part of the sprinkler system; a jockey pump is also required in a few cases. The jockey pump is fixed to indicate the changes in pressure in the sprinkler system. Two fire pumps powered by electric and diesel supply is mandatory for certain buildings. However, the capacity of the fire pump varies as per the building.  
  • Wet riser: Wet riser is an in-built water distribution system to put off fire. The water supply to the wet riser is permanently sourced unlike dry risers. The fire is saturated by means of vertical rising mains and the valves to control the water is provided in every floor/landing area.  
  • Yard hydrant: A yard hydrant should be fixed around the building at 30-metre intervals to douse the fire. Fire service inlet to be fitted at the ground level.
  • Manually-operated fire alarm call points (MCP) should be provided in all the floors at exit points in the building. It helps raise an alarm during calamities.

However, the capacity/quantity of many of these varies based on several factors such as type of building, number of rooms, purpose of the building (residential, institutional, medical, restaurants et al.), height of the building etc.

It is important to identify the kind of building and its use and refer to the corresponding specific fire safety requirements here.

Passive defence provisions

Basic requirements include a minimum of two staircases, away from each other with adequate width; glowing ‘exit’ signage with alternative power back-up and emergency lights at exit and staircase landing points.

In addition,

  • A setback area must be allotted around the building as per the Development & Control Rules of CMDA or Local Body, whichever is applicable in your place.
  • A fire drill should be conducted once a year (at least) and the fire order must be kept ready which would come handy when the need arises.
  • Cable and other ducts should be wound/sealed in every floor to check the spread of fire, heat and flame.

As in the case of active defence, passive defence too entails certain additional requirements for certain of categories of buildings, as outlined in the document above. These include, among other things, the presence of a fire lift for every 1200 sq m, a fire control room, helipad, evacuation route plan and lightning arrestor.

These would also require, depending on building specifications and usage,

  • General guidelines explaining do’s and don’ts, laminated and affixed in prominent places in all floors.
  • Refuge area on or above the 24th metre, if balcony is not provided. Refuge area is the space assigned for accommodating the residents during calamities.
  • Fire damper, affixed in air conditioners to check the spread of fire, heat, gas and flame.
  • Compartmentation, or in other words, a separate space (compartment) measuring more than 750m2 on a floor; this must be set apart by a fire resisting wall to contain fire, heat or flame
  • Automatic smoke vent system, in the basement and other covered spaces, to aid in venting out the smoke, gas etc.

In all major fire outbreaks that have been reported in the the city ( and in fact, across the state and in other cities), it has been most commonly noted that failure on the part of builders/proprietors to comply with the fire safety norms provided by the state’s fire rescue and services’ department has been at the root of most disasters.

Gross negligence of rules has caused loss of property and material and above all, innocent lives that could have been saved by just following a few norms. It is therefore imperative for all citizens to also shoulder a part of the responsibility and ensure that the rules are adhered to. As in most situations, awareness is the first step.


  1. Clara says:

    very informative post. Now we know at least how a lot of buildings that we visit are flouting fire safety laws in Chennai. what should we do if we find any buildings like that? Is there any place to complain?

    • jayaraman sivaraman says:

      As per the directive of the Madras High Court, the Department of Fire and Rescue Services are supposed to put up boards at vantage points of the buildings which are not fire-compliant, indicating that these buildings do not have proper fire safety systems.This is a sort of warning to the shoppers. But the Department has not complied with the order of the Court.

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