Globally, fires account for 300,000 deaths annually and are the largest cause of accidental injuries after road mishaps, falls and drowning. In Nepal, government statistics show that 57 persons were killed and 318 injured in 2,129 fire-related incidents across the country in 2020.
Municipalities should strictly implement the National Building Code and provisional recommendations on fire safety so as to address such emergencies. Fire hazards are overlooked in our educational curriculum. Though the impact of fire hazards in Nepal is significant, fires are overlooked in our policy and disaster management. None of the municipalities have a fire response, contingency, fire safety or emergency plan
There could be many more unreported or undocumented incidents.
Urbanisation is increasing at an alarming rate in the country, and urban centres have been declared without planning and availability of basic infrastructure.
Haphazard urbanisation, insufficient number of fire brigades and trained fire fighters, absence of wide roads and water facilities, and lack of fire protection policies and safety codes for the use of electricity, gas and other inflammable fuel are the key reasons behind increasing fire hazards in Nepal. These issues have direct impact in emergency preparedness and planning.
It is only during emergency situations, like a quake, flood or fire that we realise the need of quick and effective rescue. However, no thought has been given to what is to be done if a fire breaks out in a high rise residential complex, shopping mall or city core.
What if there is a fire at a petrol pump in the middle of a residential area? What if there are multiple incidents at the same time? Are we really prepared mentally and do we have the resources and preparedness planning? Do we have enough database or information? Do we have sufficient institutions or resources at our disposal to handle them? Basic action and preparedness could mitigate the hazards if we implement them seriously.
Such emergency planning involves three segments, namely, technical, institutional and administrative or managerial.
The technical part is the difficult part, where financial capability and expertise influence performance.
Therefore, it may not receive the required support as per international practice with respect to demographic needs. The goal of having one fire fighter for every 2,000 people and one fire engine for every 28,000 people might also not be met due to financial and manpower constraints.
Still, we can categorise sensitive areas into high and moderate risk zones, gather data by using Geographic Information System (GIS) and use the obtained data to prepare a three-dimensional model. GIS data can be obtained from governmental or international non-governmental organisations while a map could be obtained from Google Earth or Google Map applications, which are available for free.
After collecting all the base information, we must prepare a fire risk map considering the risk potential and set up buffer zones according to the category covering all the sensitive areas. Information on location of petrol pumps, chemical industries/ inflammable products storage or shops, high voltage power stations, even local transformers and dense residential areas, would be useful. Alternative sources of water in the vicinity like ponds and wells could be located on the GIS map for emergency use. Fire data based on past incidents from various areas could be helpful to analyse the demand requirement. This will be helpful to set up a fire access plan, emergency access route both for fire engines and ambulances and better preparation beforehand in case of an emergency. Battery operated smoke detectors and fire alarm should be installed mandatorily at least on flammable properties and high occupancy complexes.
We are optimistic about the institution part because if we perform seriously with a motive, we can definitely get over it institutionally.
However, financial constraint could impede performance in a country like ours. We need more fire engines, spare parts and other supplies. At least, one fire engine is required for every three wards in the urban centres. Enforcement of the Fire Brigade Operation and Management Guidelines in the municipalities is desirable. Also, every urban resident should be made familiar with the number 101 in case of a fire emergency.
Municipalities should strictly implement the National Building Code and provisional recommendations on fire safety so as to address such emergencies.
Fire hazards are overlooked in our educational curriculum.
Though the impact of fire hazards in Nepal is significant, compared to other hazards, fires are overlooked in our policy and disaster management.
None of the municipalities have a fire response, contingency, fire safety or emergency plan.
Finally, operation administration and management play a vital role in overall performance. The human resource system for fire fighters should be overhauled so that they can provide efficient service.
They face risks at every step, so full-time permanent employees working round the clock are required for emergency operations.
Team leaders with an engineering background could handle such operations efficiently, where technical and professional expertise plays an important role. Furthermore, benefits like injury insurance, life insurance and pension drive the motivation and dedication of fire fighters. They ought to be familiar with the latest technologies and have knowledge about chemicals used for handling petroleum fires.
Furthermore, mandatory basic fire extinguishing training to pump operators and mock fire drills are helpful in dealing with emergency situations. The Home Ministry should take the central responsibility and guardianship of policy making and regulating with all the concerned stakeholders, including the provincial and local governments.
Additionally, municipalities could prepare videos on handling leaking LPG gas cylinders, shot circuit situation, fire escapes and using fire extinguishers.
Dhakalis an engineer based in Canada while Sharma holds a PhD in civil engineering
A version of this article appears in the print on March 15, 2021, of The Himalayan Times.