A few top-notch safety features, but plenty of must-dos ignored

Jun 23, 2012, 07:53 IST | Shashank Rao

Former chief fire officer finds many things wanting at both heritage buildings

A day after Thursday’s devastating fire at Mantralaya, MiD DAY along with former chief fire officer Kiran Kadam yesterday conducted a study of the two heritage buildings that serve as the headquarters of the Western Railway (WR) and the Central Railway (CR) to determine how fire-ready these were.

It was found that while some safety measures ranged from good to excellent, several other vital aspects were ignored, dragging the overall fire-fighting capability down to mediocre levels.

Both stone-walled buildings hold several railway officials inside, and both are in close proximity to a railway station visited by lakhs of people everyday — the Central Railway HQ stands near the Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus (CST) and the WR HQ near the Churchgate terminus.

In the way: Kiran Kadam said that the cupboards inside the Central Railway HQ stands near the CST were a problem in an emergency as these eat up space in the corridor, restricting speedy movement. Pics/Atul Kamble

Upon stepping into the UNESCO World Heritage Building through its generously large entrance, Kadam pointed out that the entry-exit point that leads to the main gate have ample space for fire tenders to comfortably move in and out. Walking on into the passage, the first disappointment was encountered — wooden and steel cupboards were creating a blockage, and this was seen to be a crucial flaw as the path led to a canteen. Just a couple of years ago there was a huge fire because of a supposed cylinder blast that could have posed a threat to the CST heritage building. Kadam said the cupboards were a problem in an emergency as these eat up space in the corridor, restricting speedy movement.

Ineffective: Kadam observed that while the exit system was good at the Western Railway HQ in Churchgate, there were problems with the fire extinguishers, which were old or damaged

On the second floor is the office of the General Manager, the top-most official of the Central Railway. While right in front of the office, the landing valves and hoses were found to be top quality, the passages and offices adjoining the GM’s cabin told a story of missing or damaged valves and water hoses.

Kadam was also not happy with the fire extinguishers here.“The fire extinguishers contain soda-acid that is outdated and it needs to be replaced immediately,” Kadam said. The first floor fire extinguishers also did not please Kadam, who said these seemed very old. He said if the extinguishers are not changed from time to time, there is a possibility of these exploding while in use.The date of manufacture was not clearly visible on most of these fire extinguishers, but officials of the CR claimed that it was just the exterior that looked old while the contents had been replaced whenever needed.

“The moment one is used, we refill the carbon dioxide inside the fire extinguisher,” a senior CR official said. “There has to be a date of replacement written somewhere on it.” Usually the contents are replaced every two to three years, depending on usage. The CR official stated that after the recent fire that gutted the canteen at CST, measures were being taken to have everything in place.

Kamat also pointed out that the pipes that support the water hoses were painted in white though the norm is red, for the sake of immediate identification.

The buckets held black sand, but it was found that these were being used as spittoons — paan stains were unmistakable. Kadam said there was a need to immediately replace the old fire extinguishers and install a smoke detector system and sprinklers for better fire-fighting capability. CR PRO A K Singh said, “We are well-prepared for any type of incident. We have adequate water supply and the pipe is also connected to every floor."

Entering the Churchgate headquarters building that has the officer of the General Manager of Western Railway, it was found that though there was constant movement of employees and other visitors, the corridors were large and there was ample space for people to freely walk around. The corridor at the entrance, which was covered with a red carpet, also led to the back of the building.

The corridor arrangement got a thumbs-up from Kadam, who observed that it allowed an escape route for people while also leaving space for rescuers to rush in during an emergency. He was not too happy with the offices, though, as these had plenty of wooden partitions and furniture that could make it a tinderbox in case of a fire.

Kadam observed that while the exit system was good, there were problems with the fire extinguishers, which were old or damaged. “There were several portable fire extinguishers inside the building premises, but the year of manufacture was 2006,” he said. “Also, some of these were in a damaged condition and so might not be very effective.”

He also advised what is called a hydro test on these extinguishers from time to time to check their functioning. A senior railway official, who requested anonymity, said that though all the fire safety equipment had been installed, these would be of little use in reality as hardly any were in working condition.

“During an emergency, I doubt any of this equipment will work,” the official said. “Also, it is hardly tested and mock fire drills are rarely conducted.” WR PRO Nitin David said: “We have fire extinguishers, a fire alarm, water hydrants with adequate length of pipes on each floor.”

It was also claimed that there were fire sprinklers installed at various spots. Railway Protection Force officials claimed they did not have the full range of fire safety equipment, but said their staff were trained periodically and taught about the use of fire-fighting equipment. 

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