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Kuwait Disaster: ‘This should serve as an eye-opener’

Updated on: 14 June,2024 06:51 AM IST  |  Mumbai
Prabhat S Rahangdale |

Kuwait tragedy has several takeaways, as typical Mumbai scenario of dense population packed into buildings poses immense challenges

Kuwait Disaster: ‘This should serve as an eye-opener’

Fire erupted in a Kuwait building housing workers. Pic/PTI

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Kuwait Disaster: ‘This should serve as an eye-opener’

Prabhat S Rahangdale Even after more than 30 years in the fire service, every time there is news of a fire consuming lives as we have in Kuwait with more than 40 Indians dead in a blaze, there is immense sadness and the knife cuts even deeper. This is because I have seen deaths, heinous injuries and lost colleagues as a firefighter and fire chief. While news reports inevitably state the ‘number of casualties’, we must remember that victims are not statistics, each fire fatality is a human, and the loss of life has life-changing ramifications for family and loved ones.

The buildings

As the investigation begins into the fire in Mangaf Ahmadi Governorate, Kuwait with our ministers there, aircraft is ready to bring back mortal remains, there are several takeaways from this tragedy which has consumed lives and created an unfillable void for so many.

Mumbai is a city of immigrant workers and settlers. There are several slum rehab buildings here, dotting our landscape. These are usually densely packed with the worker class, many of them earning their daily bread and butter in the city. In a megapolis bursting at the seams, we have little option. Many of these cluster buildings have windows with grills.

They have gas cylinders inside. Some even run small-scale industries within. Their basements are used as storage. Many of these structures are ageing buildings, and they age faster, deterioration creeps in quicker as there is no maintenance. When elevators also do not function in many of these structures, one can understand why firefighting installations are defunct in most buildings here.

The solutions

We all know the challenges this city poses; I will not even go into overcrowded streets, narrow lanes etc. What we now need to do is to create awareness in individuals. Authorities need to use celebrities as ambassadors for fire safety. When, for instance, actor Akshay Kumar talks about a women’s health product, the recall is much stronger than perhaps when a doctor talks about it. Harness that power effectively. During my tenure, actors Randeep Hooda and Amitabh Bachchan were involved in a fire awareness programme.

There was a tremendous response to the volunteer programme from citizens. It also resulted in a drop in fire calls. That is the kind of reach I am referring to. It is also important to realise that in all high-rises now, fires are fought internally. We cannot fight them externally. Internal installations in mint condition are a must. It is also seen that many commercial building managements only wake up, or toe the fire safety line after notices are sent. That is why periodic checks are important. There is also going to be continual monitoring via a control room that will prove to be quite the game changer when it comes to fire safety compliance.

Action, please

We must also have prosecution (action) in case fire safety norms are flouted. Just see the change after CCTV (surveillance) became a must on our roads and speed limits were imposed. It did make a significant difference. That is the punitive action and law making a difference. It sets an example of what is needed in other spheres too.

Hi-tech fight

As our lifestyle and building landscape evolve, so should our firefighting. Like, we now have ‘mini’ fire stations that made a difference in a space crunch city. We need to use technology, to keep ‘ahead’ of fires. We have a biodegradable foam, for example, that is a firefighting tool. Even the mode by which we reach firefighting sites needs to evolve. Most of all, though, is the human factor. Each individual must be sharply aware. Each one must think: I live in this building; am I fire-safe?

The battle against the blaze begins from that kind of mindset. After all, firefighting is a combination of so many factors—the individuals living in a structure, the firefighting professional, equipment, technology, the law and the lay of the land. It is a complex operation but there is one simple rule which is about prevention rather than “cure” (battling the blaze). That rule is simply a heightened state of responsibility for adherence to fire safety norms.
As told to Hemal Ashar

The columnist is former Chief Fire Officer (Mumbai Fire Brigade) and recipient, Fire Service President Medal for Gallantry

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