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The hospital fire in Kolkata and next steps – any lasting effects ?




True learning from a disaster means that steps are taken to ensure that the reasons for the disaster are learnt, and the possibility of future disasters similar to the existing one are drastically reduced. Somehow, the confidence that we will learn a lot from the disaster does not really seem apparent. The recipe for deaths from most fires in India fall under the following heads:
– Fire safety equipment not installed; or installed and not maintained
– Staff not trained on usage of fire equipment and no senior member who can lead staff in case of fires
– No regular inspection by fire safety officials, or no follow up
– Hazardous materials placed in such a way that they can quickly catch fire
– No proper exit routes in case of a fire
There may be a few others, but these are the common reasons for why fires kill so many people – either from the actual heat of the fire, or from the smoke caused by the fire.
When you consider the deadly fire in a hospital in Kolkata, a lot of the above factors were valid. There was a lot of waste flammable material kept in the basement which was flagged by the Fire Service, but after the hospital asked for some time, there was no follow up.

The hospital did not seem to have considered the case where they would need to evacuate quickly, especially the patients. From media reports, except for a couple of heroic efforts, most of the staff and administrative officials of the hospital were of no use in taking the required next steps.
Even when smoke and later, the fire was reported, the guards and officers of the hospital tried to put out the fires and called the fire service when a lot of the damage had already happened.
Patients, many of who were immobile, really had no exit route, and many of them were banging on the windows, wanting out, but no escape.
The list of people contributing to the disaster was long, and besides the clear negligence of the hospital staff and management, the officials of the Government who were responsible for ensuring that the hospital had a license to take patients did not try to take any steps to ensure that buildings in the state were safe (one really cannot rule out any such fires in the future; since he knee jerk reaction was to ask hospitals to report on their fire safety; but there must be a number of other institutions out there which must be fire traps, and which do not come on the radar of the Government unless another such disaster happens).
One has to ask, is this really a one off incident ? The fire happened in the hospital, but could happen in a mall, or in a hotel, or shopping area, or any area where preventive measures such as accident safety, fire safety, etc are lacking. After the deadly fire, the Government asked hospitals to report on their status with regard to fire safety. Ideally, the hospitals should be getting checked on a regular basis, but instead a special check is implemented, which will fall by the wayside once a couple of months have passed, and commercial establishments will get back to their same deadly (waiting for accident) mode.
What is a solution ? No solution. Governance is a lot of hard work, and that too, much of it not highlighted in public approval, and hence the Governments of the day cannot be really bothered to do actual implementation and see the problems that arise. We need more honest officials, and that is unlikely unless there is a lot of clean sweep, which will also remove a lot of the power of politicians (Lokpal anyone?).




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