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Fire traps

Most commercial buildings in the city are criminally ill-equipped when it comes to fire safety

Fire traps
The basements of many commercial buildings, approved for parking, are being unlawfully used for commercial activities. — Photos by Rahat Dar

Basement fires are deadly. They have the capacity to reduce an entire building to a chimney. It is criminal that buildings with no fire exits should get away with having basements.

A metropolitan city like Lahore is prone to fires. Only a couple of weeks back, we saw an entire floor of the Century Tower burn to ashes. This was the second time in less than five years that such an incident had happened at the ill-fated building. Last year, a popular bakery cum restaurant in Barkat Market caught fire, and at least five people were suffocated to death because they could not find a way to escape. Data provided by Rescue 1122 shows that in the past year and half, different incidents of fire in the provincial capital consumed 26 lives and left 246 people charred. The data also speaks of 1,109 fire emergencies as reported.

While the cause of the fires has varied, there is only one reason why these casualties could not be averted: the buildings lacked proper fire safety systems in terms of extinguishers, alarms, and emergency exits.

The Century Tower building caught fire early last month.

The Century Tower building caught fire early last month.

On the other hand, in September last, some 43 people trapped inside a burning Ali Tower, a 14-floor shopping plaza on M M Alam Road, were successfully rescued by teams using the fire escape. The only loss of life happened when a person tried to jump from a floor of the building.

However, the Civil Defence Department (CDD), mandated to inspect fire safety measures in industrial and commercial buildings, rejected the building’s preparedness (in the event of a fire).

The mandatory fire safety arrangements include fire detection and alarm system, firefighting arrangements (extinguishers, hydrants, sprinklers etc), emergency fire control room, emergency exit(s), evacuation plans, ventilation and air conditioning system.

In September 2018, the CDD shared a report with the Lahore Development Authority (LDA) in which it was revealed that more than 125 buildings in the provincial capital lacked fire safety system and equipment. The commercial buildings with basements are at even greater risk, and while the department found these better equipped, it identified several problems.

As per the bylaws in LDA’s Commercialisation Policy, all buildings with basements are supposed to have two fire escape staircases. A senior LDA official tells TNS on condition of anonymity that not a single plaza or commercial building is following the rules.

There’s an interesting spin on the story. According to data compiled by the City Traffic Police (CTP), as many as 246 commercial buildings located on Mall Road, Jail Road and Ferozepur Road have converted their basements into shops that were actually approved for parking.

The mandatory fire safety arrangements include fire detection and alarm system, firefighting arrangements (extinguishers, hydrants, sprinklers etc), emergency fire control room, emergency exit(s), evacuation plans, ventilation and air conditioning system.

Spokesperson, CTP, Rana Arif says that such conversion is a “serious violation of the bylaws that not only puts innocent lives in danger but also reduces the capacity of the roads which are occupied by the parking vehicles.

“We see the worst violation [of the Commercialisation Policy] on M M Alam Road,” he adds. “Despite the enforcement of law, the illegal status of commercial plazas is ‘changed’ by setting up the Lahore Parking Company.”

The LDA official further says that the building standards have been divided into three clauses: fire prevention, life safety, and fire protection. “The fire prevention covers aspects pertaining to design and construction of buildings on passive fire protection measures, and describing the type of building material and their fire safety rating.

“The life safety provision deals with events of fire and similar emergencies, and addresses construction and occupancy features that are necessary to minimise danger to life from fire, smoke, fumes, and/or panic. The protection aspect is related to components and guidelines for selecting the correct types of equipment and installations meant for fire protection of buildings, depending on their classifications and types.”

A fire-fighting system is certainly the most important of building services, as it aims at protecting human life and property. It consists of three basic tiers: smoke detectors, a sprinkler system, and fire hydrants. A smoke detector is a device that senses smoke, typically as an indicator of fire. A sprinkler is a nozzle attached to a network of pipes. It has a small bulb, with liquid in it, and blocks the flow of water. In case of a fire, the liquid in the bulb will become hot, expand, and shatter the glass bulb, removing the obstacle and causing water to sprinkle out. A fire hydrant is a vertical steel pipe with an outlet, close to which fire hoses are stored.

Public Relations Officer, Rescue 1122, Muhammad Farooq Ahmed claims that except for the Shaheen Complex there is no building that boasts a three-tier fire-fighting system. The LDA Plaza situated at Egerton Road didn’t have a fire hydrant prior to the unfortunate fire incident that took 25 lives, back in 2013. “This is so unfortunate that our commercial buildings don’t follow the standards of fire prevention and life safety, which adds to the burden on rescue teams,” he says.

“The situation gets worse when we have to get people out of the basements because there is hardly a building in Lahore that has built a safety passage or emergency exit [in the basement].”

Apart from the Commercialisation Policy of LDA, the Building Code of Pakistan Fire Safety Provisions, 2016, clearly offers guidelines on new and old commercial buildings to ensure minimum requirement for fire protection.

In Lahore, apart from the CDD there are four different local authorities responsible for inspecting and ensuring safety standards that include the Walled City of Lahore Authority (WCLA), Town Municipal Authority (TMA), LDA, and the District Government. Yet, serious violations are the order of the day.

On the orders of the Supreme Court of Pakistan, Director General, LDA, Amna Imran Khan visited private hospitals, hotels, and commercial buildings and reviewed the enforcement status of the building by-laws, commercialisation of plots, parking provisions, safety standards, implementation of environmental laws, as well as other relevant regulations.

The DG is said to have found gross violations, especially with regard to basements that had been approved for parking but were being used for commercial activities, and had no emergency exits. Warning notices were issued on the spot.

Additionally, the LDA is trying to take the different trade associations on board so that the safety SOPs are ensured.

Shehryar Warraich

The author is a member of the staff and can be reached at [email protected]

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