A person burned to death in a fire at the Somobay Market near Jameson Red Crescent Maternity Hospital in Anderkilla, Chattogram on February 22.
At the time, Chattogram Fire Service and Civil Defence’s Deputy Assistant Director Mohammad Abdullah told reporters that the market had no firefighting equipment to douse the fire.
The market was already at fire risk because it had chemical storage and its staircase was so narrow that it could not even fit two people side by side, he said.
Before this incident, a fire occurred at the privately-run BM Container depot in Sitakunda on December 13 — just six months after a massive fire and explosion on June 4 gutted it and killed at least 51 people including 10 firefighters.
Like these establishments, 27.6 per cent of buildings in Chattogram Division are at high fire risk, according to the recently released Annual Statistics Report 2022 of the Fire Service and Civil Defence (FSCD) Directorate.
Experts claim that authorities do not take effective steps even though fires are leading to casualties and property damage every year across the country. Fire Service writes to the authorities concerned detailing what steps should be taken but no one pays attention.
The authorities seemingly care about strictly ensuring fire safety only after a major accident occurs, they said. But they still do not follow through later whether building owners are actually ensuring fire safety.
Between January 1 and December 31 in 2022, FSCD inspected 5,869 establishments and buildings, including residential, commercial, industry, hospital, and public and private institutions, around the country.
Fire Service officials said that buildings were identified as “risky and very risky” during the inspection based on the capacity of the building’s lower reservoir, number of residents, the wideness of entrance, presence of smoke and fire detection device, floor size, emergency escape ladder, lift, etc.
2,223 buildings facing fire risk
In its report, FSCD said 2,223 buildings, or 38 per cent of the total, are at fire risk around the country. Of them, 617 were at high risk and 1,606 were risky.
In Chattogram Division, 1,676 buildings were inspected and 463 of them or 27.6 per cent were found to be at high fire risk and 447 are at risk.
In the second position is Dhaka, where FSCD inspected 1,162 buildings and found 635 of them as dangerous. Also, 136 buildings or 11.7 per cent of the total were at high risk and 499 were risky.
There have been numerous fire incidents in the capital city over the years. But the safety issue came to the fore again last month, after a multi-storey building caught fire in Dhaka’s Gulshan area on February 19 and two people died after jumping from the building in an attempt to escape,
Apart from Chattogram and Dhaka, of the FSCD inspected buildings, 205 in Barishal are also at risk of catching fire, 170 in Khulna, 123 in Rangpur, 34 in Sylhet, 140 in Rajshahi and six in Mymensingh, according to the annual report.
Lack of coordination?
Director General (DG) of the FSCD Directorate Brig Gen Md Main Uddin said, “Our job is to put out the fires, identify the problems and make people more aware of the risks. “We always notify the owners and concerned authorities after identifying the risky buildings. It is not our job to force them to follow through. There are other agencies to enforce the law.”
At a press conference on February 22, DG Main also said that Fire Service and the city corporations will begin a joint operation against the buildings that do not comply with the fire safety law. “The operation will start soon. Other relevant matters will be looked at by the concerned departments.”
Responding to a question regarding illegal factories, he told The Business Post, “My job is to put out the fire. It is not my job to move the factories. After the Nimtoli and Chawkbazar fires, we did not issue any clearance certificate for any shop or factory in those areas.
“Whatever shops and factories are operating there, they are doing it illegally.” Institute for Planning and Development Executive Director Professor Adil Mohammed Khan told The Business Post that Chattogram has seen a lot of industrialisation over the years. It has the country’s largest port and there are many big factories, which is why the number of people living there has risen.
“But the roads are not wide enough. There are many narrow roads, which makes Fire Service’s work more difficult when they go to put out a fire,” he added.
The urban planning expert said, “Many departments are involved in ensuring fire and building safety and they need to maintain better communication. Many are apathetic about fire safety due to the lack of coordination and enforcement of laws. “The government must be strict when it comes to the safety of people.”
Government organisations often feel intimidated to take strict measures because most of the owners of many high-rise buildings are influential individuals. They feel massive pressure to take action because they do not want to face any problematic situation, he added.