With 33 fire stations and modern equipment, fire safety in Chennai still a far cry

Condition of roads, working conditions of fire safety personnel and several other challenges before the Tamil Nadu Fire and Rescue Services must be overcome if the city is to prevent and tackle disasters that require the department's action.

The decline of Tamil Nadu Fire and Rescue Services over the years does not usually come to the fore unless there are untoward incidents such as the recent Chennai Silks fire.  But whether it is obvious or not, the deterioration in the department coupled with the general lack of fire safety awareness and preparedness in the city has meant that personnel are often incapacitated to save as many lives as could be saved.

While the department boasts of having added high end engines including gigantic Bronto Sky lifts, there are too many constraints and demotivators for the personnel.

Narrow roads pose big challenge

The existing fire engines in all the 33 fire stations in Chennai are not suitable for city roads, admit firemen. According to a senior official from Chennai Corporation, more than 30 per cent of the lanes in the peripheral areas — especially the agricultural and residential spaces, where they are often less than five feet in width and in bad condition.

Apart from the few high end localities that have wide roads, most of the roads in the city are narrow and congested. During asphyxiation, when every second is critical to save lives, firemen struggle to get into these crammed roads. They are left with no other option but to park their fire engines away from the accident scene and then tie ropes to their vehicles and extinguish the fire.

The width of a QRV, which is the smallest vehicle, is around two metres. Apart from the 20 Quick Response Vehicles, Chennai has 50 water tenders that are used in small accidents. Unlike QRVs, the water tenders have no facility to use ropes.  The city also has three Emergency Rescue Tenders(ERT) that are used to rescue people from toppled vehicles.

It may be noted that access is made even more difficult by haphazardly parked vehicles and encroachments, thus hindering entry of the fire vehicle to the scene. “We have enough engines, at par with international standards. The problem is with the narrow roads, that are made narrower due to encroachments,” said a driver from the fire department.

A six-member crew from the Tambaram fire station rushed to a lane in New Perungalathur after receiving a call about a person who had fallen into an open well.  “The person was dead when we received the call and our task was to lift the body. As the lane was very narrow, we parked our Quick Response Vehicle (QRV) around 600 metres away and walked with ropes to the scene,” said one of the members of the crew. “If the person had been alive, the walking time could have made a big difference to his life,” he admitted.

A neglected workforce

Compared to other uniformed services, firemen in Tamil Nadu work in a demotivating environment as many of them retire without a revision in their salaries and promotions. 45-year-old K. Sriram (name changed), who has been slogging at the Tamil Nadu Fire and Rescue Services for 22 years now has had only two promotions.

“I joined the department as a fireman. Only after working for ten years as a fireman was I promoted as a driver. Then again, after working for a decade as a driver,I have now been promoted to the post of mechanic. We have no career satisfaction or growth,” says Sriram.  His colleagues say that he has the calibre to be a station master, having trained many juniors and spearheaded rescue teams.

Sriram is, in fact, one among the creamy layer who enjoyed two promotions. Many employees like him have retired as drivers. The members also request the state government to increase the risk allowance, which doesn’t exceed Rs 800.

The massive staff crunch was recently addressed to some extent after the department recruited over 1000 people. However, it would take two more months for the new members to be inducted as they are currently being trained.

Inadequate training

Besides dousing blazes, firemen also attend to animal rescues regularly in the city. The department receives a lot of calls to rescue cows that have fallen in an open pit or a snake that has entered a house. But unfortunately, fire department personnel are not trained to do so.  

“You have to understand the nature of the animal, take precautionary measures to defend yourself — animal rescue requires specific expertise. But we have not been trained on the subject for a year now,” revealed a fireman from Avadi station, seeking anonymity.

Training sessions, which were conducted regularly by the forest department was stopped more than three years ago. “Most of the times, the calls are connected to the wildlife office in Velachery. But we also go for animal rescues. Since the newly recruited are ignorant about animal rescue operations, seniors chip in and teach them. When the other uniform-service employees including the police are trained regularly, why not us?” he questioned.

Director General of Police, K P Mahendran said, “There’s no special animal rescue training, except snake catching training which was given a few years back at Guindy snake park. The personnel use their ingenuity and experience to rescue animals.”

When questioned about training of those freshly recruited, he said the department would consider the matter.

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