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Andheri tower blaze: Fire department is playing with fire, and lives

Depending on the number of fire safety violations that they have to overlook, fire officials charge builders anywhere between Rs 15 lakh and Rs 25 lakh for an NOC

If you needed proof that ill-gotten money is more important to government officials than your life, look no further.

Also read: Fire under control at Andheri's Lotus Business Park, 1 firefighter dead

Investigations carried out by mid-day in the wake of yesterday’s blaze in Andheri have revealed that a No-Objection Certificate (NOC) from the fire brigade, without which no building can get an occupancy certificate, costs a paltry Rs 15-25 lakh.

Fire at Andheri's Lotus Business Park
Some firefighters were stranded on the terrace (circled) and had to be rescued by the Coast Guard

While the rules state that extensive fire audits need to be carried out and the NOC cannot be issued unless all the requirements are met, builders skirt the regulations by greasing the palms of fire officials — from the lowest rungs to the topmost ones. mid-day spoke to existing and former senior fire officers, who admitted that the practice is becoming increasingly widespread. Since the fire department’s nod is needed at various stages of construction, a fire officer said money is demanded at all of those stages.

The stages include the approval of the basic design plan and the issuance of the NOC following the inspection of fire safety measures at the site while the building is under construction. Even after the building is complete and the occupancy certificate (OC) is issued, fire officials extract their pound of flesh when they visit for a fire safety audit.

“The price for approval of the design plan varies from R1 lakh to R5 lakh depending on the size of the project, the reputation of the builder, the project’s location and even its nature (commercial/residential). Then, depending on how many fire safety lapses need to be overlooked, the price for the final NOC is negotiated between R15 lakh and R25 lakh,” said a senior fire officer.

Departure from past
The officer added that although builders have been greasing the palms of senior fire officers for a long time, only in the recent past have fire officers nearly institutionalised the practice and started demanding money at every stage. A builder who has recently gone through the process of getting the fire safety NOC confessed to mid-day that he had shelled out Rs 18 lakh for it. He said he was forced to do so because the banks and his clients would not have cleared final payments unless he had an OC.

Fire at Andheri's Lotus Business Park
Objectionable: Despite the Lotus Business Park not following safety norms, the fire brigade had issued an NOC to it. Pics/Suresh KK

A builder from the Bandra-Khar area, who did not wish to named, said, “In my experience, the price for a fire NOC varies from Rs 6 lakh to Rs 15 lakh depending on the equation with the fire officer as well as the size of the project.”

Rampant flouting
A retired fire officer said, “Every building needs to have a two-part fire fighting system – active and passive — in place, but this is not followed by most residential and commercial high rises in Mumbai. Design flaws are also a big reason for mishaps as builders make numerous modifications to the initial design approved by the fire department during the construction phase without bothering to take the department’s permission. All this is later overlooked for money.”

Fire at Andheri's Lotus Business Park
Facing the heat: Nearly 150 fire officials from all over Mumbai and parts of Thane were called in to douse the fire at Lotus Business Park, which took more than eight hours to be extinguished

“Most buildings which have a glass façade do not even have proper refuge areas, and fire equipment, even if it is installed, usually does not function,” he added.

The officer said that Adarsh Society, which had got the fire NOC, is a case in point as the original plan had shown that an entire floor would be kept as a refuge area after every seven floors, but this was changed and only half a floor was left, which is against safety norms.

Another officer said a proposal to have a separate unit has been pending with the BMC since 2010, a year after the Maharashtra Fire Prevention and Life Safety Measures Rules, 2009, which made these audits mandatory, came into force. He said the fire department has nearly 30% of sanctioned posts vacant.

Officialspeak
M V Deshmukh, Director, Maharashtra Fire Services, said, “I have not received any complaints, but the fact remains that as per Section 3 of the Maharashtra Fire Prevention and Life Safety Measures Act, 2006, it is mandatory for fire audits to be carried out by licensed agencies. If all the measures are in place, Form A is issued by the agency.

“However, if regulators realise later that the NOC was given despite deficiencies existing, the agency faces criminal prosecution under Section 36 of the Act. This legal outsourcing mechanism was envisaged to bring in more transparency and ensure that the rules are properly followed.”

An officer, however, said that this method is rarely followed in Mumbai.

Prevention’s better than fire-fighting

Some fire safety requirements for high-rises
>> Every high-rise should have an operational fire detection system
>> High-rises should have a wet/dry riser (equipment which helps firemen pump water to each floor) and downcomer system (which brings water downward from the mandatory 20,000-litre tank on the terrace meant for fire-fighting purposes)
>> Automatic sprinklers with sensors which trigger when the temperature rises from 68 degree Centigrade to 112 degree Centigrade
>> Fire-resistant doors which can keep the flames out for half an hour to an hour
>> Refuge areas close to the staircase
>> Fire-resistant doors on the staircases and at least two staircases in each building
>> Sprinklers, smoke detectors and other fire equipment should be connected to a generator backup
>> Buildings with glass façades should have enough entry and exit points for firefighters
>> Gaps between the floor and the glass façade should be covered with insulating fireproof material to prevent fire from spreading to other floors

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