Dhaka,  Sunday
14 April 2024

EMBRACING ACCOUNTABILITY FOR URBAN FIRE HAZARD PREVENTION

Time for actions, not accusations

Md Hasan Howlader

Published: 13:31, 4 March 2024

Time for actions, not accusations

Photo : Messenger

A tragic fire incident unfolded in Dhaka's Bailey Road on 29 February 2024 – thereby claiming the lives of at least 46 individuals and leaving others injured. The day started off beautifully but quickly turned into a nightmare for many, especially those who were the occupants of a multistory building. Starting my day in Hong Kong on March 1, 2024, browsing through the internet, the devastating news of 46 lives lost in the Bailey Road fire tragedy shook me to the core. The families and loved ones left behind in the wake of this tragedy would undoubtedly be consumed by heartbreaking mourning.

According to reports, there were several well-known restaurants inside the burning building where foodies had gathered to savour the mouthwatering flavours they had to offer. These individuals might have taken to social media to share their experiences or talked about them with their loved ones, highlighting the delicious cuisine and excellent service. Regrettably, today we are faced with the grim task of tallying the deceased, reflecting on the profound grief experienced by families and the shattered aspirations of ambitious students and professionals. 

Fire has been a crucial element for humanity since the dawn of human civilization, serving various essential purposes like cooking, providing protection from predators, and aiding in crafting. However, its destructive potential can result in devastating consequences, destroying lives and assets in its wake. We are always on the brink of danger, with risks hidden just below the surface. Being unprepared and lacking the essential skills to deal with such a powerful force can have devastating consequences, striking suddenly and without warning. This stark reality has brought fire safety to the forefront of policy and administration on a global scale. Worldwide, governments and organisations are acknowledging the critical importance of tackling this pressing matter. It has become increasingly clear in our society that there is a concerning lack of consideration for the risk of fire incidents in building construction and safety equipment installation.

Unfortunately, Bangladesh has faced multiple fire tragedies in the past. Every year, our nation experiences numerous fire incidents, mostly in urban areas, with Dhaka being the most affected. Reflecting on the repeated occurrence of these tragic fires and the countless lives lost has inspired me to put pen to paper. Feeling weighed down by the number of deaths, I believe it is crucial to recognise the seriousness of the situation and focus on enhancing fire safety measures in Bangladesh. It is crucial to ensure that buildings are constructed with strict safety standards in mind and equipped with advanced fire prevention and mitigation systems.

Rest assured, I am not a specialist in this field. My insights are drawn from my personal experiences in Hong Kong, a truly diverse and vibrant city. After my time in Hong Kong, I was impressed by the city's level of preparedness and innovation in preventing fire hazards. Every building is equipped with a fire hydrant right in front of it, and there is plenty of open space on either side of the building. In addition, the roads are well-built to guarantee that emergency services can access any building in the event of a fire. Fire alarms and smoke detectors are common features found inside buildings. Living in a dormitory as a postgraduate student, frequent fire alarm disruptions have become a common occurrence, often disturbing my sleep at night. Although the events were not real fire threats, they were set off by smoke detectors, highlighting the significance of having such devices installed. I was struck by the prompt response of the firefighters in addressing and deactivating the fire alarm, regardless of the time of day. Emphasising the importance of fire safety measures can have a profound impact on protecting lives and averting devastating tragedies. Emulating the strategies of cities such as Hong Kong will enhance our urban areas' readiness to manage fire emergencies. Hence, the following demands and actions are being proposed to safeguard our buildings and people: 

Urban authorities taking proactive measures: We propose that our urban authority rigorously implement improved building codes and regulations. All stakeholders must be held accountable for ensuring that buildings are constructed and maintained with fire safety in mind. The significant strike and proactive involvement of the relevant authority in monitoring and inspecting can play a crucial role in bringing it to fruition. We have the experts and trained officials in place; what is required is to enhance their proactive responsibility.

Service providers with top-notch equipment: It is imperative to allocate resources to enhance firefighting services. Every time a fire breaks out, the brave firefighters put their lives on the line to rescue people from the chaos. Lately, there has been a significant government investment in providing firefighters in Bangladesh with the necessary equipment. It is crucial to have a sufficient number of well-trained firefighting personnel with modern equipment stationed near urban centers due to their continuous growth. This will enable them to promptly and efficiently address any fire emergency.

Dedicated and well-aware citizens: As citizens and residents, we have the power to prevent and reduce fire tragedies by being responsible and proactive. It is crucial to consider the presence of safety measures like fire alarms, fire hydrants, fire extinguishers, and emergency fire exits when selecting tenants for buildings. As building owners, it is crucial to adhere to building codes, ensure adequate space around the building, utilise fire-resistant electrical materials, set up fire alarms and smoke detectors, create a fire mitigation strategy, and share it with residents. It has come to our attention that, at times, firefighters face challenges in carrying out their duties effectively because of limited space and insufficient water sources in the vicinity. Therefore, it is crucial to prioritise the inclusion of open and easily accessible spaces surrounding buildings during the construction phase. An urgent call for installing fire hydrants in every urban area has been made in collaboration with WASHA to ensure easy access to water for firefighters. One effective way to enhance fire safety in buildings is by installing fire alarms, extinguishers, and hydrants. Educating residents on how to use these tools through fire drill exercises can also be beneficial. It is important to remain mindful of emergency exits and ensure they are consistently unobstructed. It is crucial to ensure that the area around emergency exits is kept clear at all times. These efforts aim to inform, enable, and motivate individuals to assume accountability as necessary.

Allow me to reiterate Albert Einstein's famous quote: "The world is a dangerous place, not because of those who do evil, but because of those who look on and do nothing." This statement remains relevant in addressing the problem of fire risks in cities. I also find the fire tragedy in our country very similar to the popular expression “Nero fiddles while Rome burns.” We cannot afford to sit back and watch as our cities become more vulnerable to fire hazards and take a heavy toll on lives and property. Therefore, we must take action to prevent our cities from becoming increasingly susceptible to fire risks, which can result in devastating consequences for both people and property. We need to collaborate and take proactive measures to prevent and reduce the dangers of fire hazards. 
In my opinion, fire safety is a shared responsibility that requires the participation of everyone in society. It is crucial to have strict building codes, enforcement, and monitoring in place, along with educating citizens on fire safety.

We must remain vigilant and proactive. Let's come together, spread awareness, and imagine a better future. Let's ensure that the night of February 29, 2024, becomes a pivotal moment in our history of fire safety assurance, where we commit to safeguarding our lives and avoiding future fire disasters through our concerted efforts. 

May the souls of those lost in the fire tragedy find eternal peace.

The writer is Associate Professor, Development Studies Discipline, Khulna University, and a PhD fellow at Lingnan University, Hong Kong. He can be reached at [email protected]

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