Globally, after road accidents, falls and drowning, Fire cause over 300,000 deaths annually and are the fourth-largest cause of accidental injuries. Death from fire globally itself has big numbers and fire related injuries have long term impacts not only physically but also financial and psychological. In developing world, Fire in areas that are unplanned or increasing number of high-rise buildings, residential complex and mix land use system together with commercial activities even has unimaginable steer to get over its consequences. Globally, urban centers which are not planned are facing increasing number in loss of life from fire each year. In Nepal, according to the statistics released by National Emergency Operation Center, Ministry of Home Affaires (MoHA) in 2020 , 57 persons were killed and 318 injured in 2,129 incidents of fire across the country. Similarly, the fire destroyed and damaged 886 and 535 houses respectively. Recently, three people were injured after a massive fire broke out at a residential colony in Kathmandu's Ravi Bhawan. At least 13 army personnel were killed in a forest fire in Ramechhap bazaar in 2009 as they tried to prevent the blaze spreading to a local hospital. It was reported that army did not enough source, training, and experience to fight with the fire. In India where urbanization pattern and socio-economic condition are similar to our country, about twenty people were killed when a fire broke out in a four-storey commercial building in the city of Surat, Gujarat in 2019. The financial loss or damage caused by the fire stood around 3.96 billion rupees. MoHA recorded a total of 92 incidents of fire, mostly in valley, over a period of one week. This data shows low in number, but in reality, there are numerous unreported or undocumented statistics related to such hazard. The number of recorded fire event has been ticking up in recent decades (see figure above). From 2011 to 2020, the fire event increased by about two and half times.
Figure: Number people died and injured dure to fire with number of fire events.
In Nepal, urbanization is increasing at an alarming rate and urban centers were declared without proper planning and availability of basic essential infrastructure facilities. Several studies show that Nepal is one of the top ten fastest urbanising countries and about six million people are living in urban areas. Due to haphazard urbanization, urban areas in Nepal are becoming more vulnerable to fire. Haphazard urbanization, insufficient number of fire brigades and trained fire fighter, lack of wide roads and water facilities, lack of fire protection policies and safety codes for the use of electricity, gas, and other flammable fuel etc. are the key reasons of increased fire hazard in Nepal. Similarly with the political change, several national and international factors has played significant role on demand of more urban centers which may not be required. Our modern urbanization has occurred without land use planning, planning of basic essential infrastructures, urban access systems. Therefore these issues have its direct impact in case of emergency preparedness and planning. Both of our rural and urban communities have an experience during the 2015 earthquake. We only have a realization in such emergency situation (earthquake, fire, flood or any) that rescue has to be done fast and injured people should be taken to the hospital as soon as possible. However, we still have unanswered questions like what will happen if there is fire in high rise residential complex, or shopping mall? What will happen if there is fire at urban core? What will happen when there are multiple incidents at same time? What will happen when there is fire at petrol pump at middle of residential area? What will happen in case of multiple core areas fire? Our heritages? Are we really prepared mentally, with resources or do we have preparedness planning? Do we have enough database or information? Our institution or available resources could handle it? What can be best done with current facilities setting? We have realized that basic action and preparedness could minimize in some extent if we follow and implement them seriously. Therefore, we would like to categorize this emergency planning in three segments respectively as Technical, Institutional and Administrative or Managerial.
Technical part is the difficult part where financial capability and expertise dominates the performance. Therefore, it may not show or receive required need according to the international practice with respect to demographic requirement. Similarly, economically and skilled manpower requirement to fulfill one fire fighter in every 2,000 people and one fire engine in every 28,000 people goal might not meet. We can however make our own standard based on the available resources and expertise. At least, we can categorize sensitive areas with respect to high and moderate risk zones; gather data by using Geographic Information System; GIS and incorporating obtained data with three-dimensional modelling. GIS data’s could be obtained from Governmental or International Non Governmental Organizations or map could be obtained from Google Earth or Google Map applications which are available for free. The only exercise here is gathering all city directories from local municipality in order to identify the activities which will help to sort out the potential risks. Today’s generation, many young professionals are tender to work on new field or ideas and GIS is one of this subject. We can not only use young enthusiasm and talents but also open the scope for their potential expertise in this disaster management field. After collecting all base information, assemble all related information concerning with respect to potential fire risk and categorize. Prepare Fire Risk Map considering the risk potential, set up Buffer Zones according to the category covering all sensitive areas. Information can be collected such as location of petrol pump stations, location of chemical industries/ flammable products storage or shops, location of other type of industries, location of high voltage power stations, location of electric power substations , even location detail of local transformer, very dense residential areas etc. Alternative of source of water in the vicinity (local, wells, ponds etc) could be located in the GIS map so that water can be pumped from such locations when there is last minute call. Historical Fire Data based on the past incidents from various areas could be helpful to analyze the demand requirement analysis. This will be helpful to set up a fire access plan, emergency access route both for fire engines and ambulances and better preparation beforehand in case of emergency situation. According to global practice, fire hydrants are spaced in between 90m to 150m according to the density of the areas. Furthermore, parking is always banned with 5 meters to and from the fire hydrant location. In Nepal, Fire Hydrants were installed in old water line layout in some areas of Kathmandu. We have omitted this process when we have scarcity both space and water. The current post-melamchi period is the golden opportunity for such layout to install fire hydrants on curbs or sidewalks. Globally more than water pressure with 200 psi pressure is required in order to extinguish fire especially for high rise building. However this would not be possible to deliver from Melamchi Water Supply Project pressure specification. In such case, at least one fire engine is required in each fire station which can deliver pressure more than 200-350 psi. For high occupancy areas or facilities, periodic inspection should be done to gather data for entry and exit system of such facilities. Routine inspection of equipment together with required maintenance would be helpful. Activities like pressure check, Pump hose & pipe leak check should be done in routine basis. Mock fire drill can also be done in order to get prepared in last minute. Battery operated smoke detectors and fire alarm should be installed mandatory at least on flammable properties and high occupancy complexes. Delivering an idea of standard fire extinguishing kit based on our local resources could be helpful for last minute preparation.
We are optimistic in Institution part because if we have our clear goal setting and good motive to increase our performance and if we perform seriously with a motive, we can definitely get over it institutionally. However, financial part with every institution also dominates its performance and this is the major problem for any developing country. We need more equipment like fire engines, its parts and required supplies. According to current data, this available resource is very negligible for such high-density areas. At least one fire engine is required for every three wards in every urban center. Additionally, to deliver prompt action regarding access routes, local ward as well as municipality should build a strict enforcing environment in order to control parking regulation. Special consideration should be taken for such areas which are near from hospitals, fire brigade stations etc. Enforcing Fire Brigade Operation and Management Guidelines from the Local municipality could be the best possible solution. Also public awareness is also essential for current social media generation. Very few people know about Fire Emergency number, in emergency situation they first call police station and this process lengthen initial action time for fire fighters. Every resident of urban areas should be familiar with # 101 in case of Fire Emergency. We also find improvement in the field of inter institutional networking. There should be remarkable coordination between central, provincial and local governments. Sharing of information and coordination is very much important between Fire Stations, Local Municipality, Nepal Army, Nepal Police, Armed Police, hospitals with burn ward and other emergency management institutions. In local level, ward level coordination, municipality and hospital with burn unit and related funding system also assist for quick action in emergency situation. Local municipality should strictly implement the National Building Code NBC 206:2015 and NBC 107:1997, Provisional Recommendation on Fire Safety, so as to address such emergencies. Also, if there is requirement of any amendment on these NBC, central government could prepare an expertise team and apply modification as required. Lastly, to discover local based practical solution young energetic students could be motivated for research in case of emergency situation like fire. Institutes which are engaged in urban based research and studies could be engaged in delivering practical solutions for the delivery. This sector could be a good research topic for young students. Fire hazards are overlooked in our educational curriculum. Fire hazards should be included in our education curriculum.
Two fire-fighters lost their lives and three were injured while fighting fire in a gas factory fire in Parsa district in 2017. This incident clearly indicate that our fire-fighters do not have enough equipment including PPE and trainings to fight again the fire. Though the impact of fire hazard in Nepal is significant, compared to other hazards, fires are overlooked in our policy and disaster management. None of the municipalities have made fire response, contingency, fire safety or emergency plans.
Finally, operation administration and management part plays a vital role for overall performance. For Fire Fighters, human resource system should be overhauled so as to provide a confident service. Risk is in every minute so full time permanent employees with 24 hour shift are required for emergency operation. Team leader having engineering background could handle effectively for such operation where technical and professional expertise plays an important role. Professionals who have passed intermediate in Mechanical Engineering could be the best option. Furthermore, Benefits like injury insurance, life insurance and pension derives the motivation and dedication on fire fighters. Routine training with valid training tickets boosts familiarity on latest technologies like knowledge on chemicals that used for handling petroleum fire, operation of drone for getting data on fire spread and its area of expansion. Furthermore, mandatory basic fire extinguishing training to pump operators and mock fire drill is also helpful to gather familiarity practice for emergency situations. MoHA should take the central responsibility and guardianship on policy making and regulating together with all concerned stakeholders ranging from provincial and local governments. Additionally, local municipality could prepare general training video for general public by which fire can be extinguish at its first spread at source. Videos like handling leaked LPG gas cylinders, shot circuit situation, fire escapes, using fire extinguisher cylinder etc would be very helpful to get over this problem.
Dhakal (@RajibDhakal) is a Professional Engineer in Canada and Sharma (@KS_Paudel) who holds PhD in Civil Engineering, is a columnist writes on socio-technical issues.