Safety and rules

Print edition : August 13, 2004

Strict enforcement of the building rules for schools and colleges and training teachers and other personnel in the basics of civil defence will go a long way in saving lives in the event of fire accidents.

THE fire at the Kumbakonam school has once again brought to the fore the question of safety in public buildings, especially those housing schools and colleges. In Tamil Nadu schools and colleges are categorised as public buildings - understood as places where people gather - and clubbed with cinema halls, auditoria and exhibition halls.

Fire fighters at work in Kolkata's business hub of Burrabazar in December 2002.-PARTH SANYAL

While school or college buildings in Chennai come under the purview of the Development Control Rules for Chennai Metropolitan Area as prescribed by the Chennai Metropolitan Development Authority (CMDA), outside Chennai they come under the Tami Nadu Public Buildings Rules. Both sets of Rules were framed under the Tamil Nadu District Municipalities Act.

Structural engineers suggest that there should be separate building rules for schools and colleges and the rules should insist on considerable open space all round the buildings. Currently, a school or college building in Chennai comes under the category of multi-storeyed building if it has a height of 15 metres to 30 m above the ground level. Rule 3 of Annexure-IX, called Special Rules for multi-storeyed buildings under the Development Control Rules of the CMDA, stipulates that such multi-storeyed buildings should have a minimum setback (open) space of 7 m all round. The space between apartment blocks in the complex should also be 7 m. Rule 3 adds: "For every increase in height of six metres or part thereof above 30 metres, minimum extent of setback space to be left additionally shall be one metre."

It insists that "the space specified above shall be kept open to the sky and free from any erection/projection (such as sunshade and balcony) of any building other than a fence or compound wall provided that these open yards may be used for the provision of access ways to the building's parking facilities." Another rule prescribes that "the vehicular access-way within the site shall have a minimum width of 7.2 metres and such vehicular access shall be available for every building block within the site". These rules were framed in accordance with the National Building Code of India, 1970. In fact, the code prescribes 12 m of open space for a multi-storeyed building with a height of 15 m.

"The purpose of this rule [prescribing 7.2 m of vehicular access] is to facilitate the movement of the snorkel (fire-fighting truck) so that its trunk with a length of 5.3 m can unfold easily and the water jet can reach the top floors," a CMDA engineer said. The CMDA insists on 6 m of open space all round if the school building has a height less than 15 m. According to the CMDA's Development Control Rules, the setback space all round for all public buildings "such as theatres, kalyana mantaps, exhibition halls, automobile garages and service workshops shall be not less than six metres". Six metres is enough for an ordinary fire-fighting truck to manoeuvre around these structures to fight fires.

The Development Control Rules also insist that the minimum plot area for a primary school or high school in a continuously built up area, say like George Town in Chennai, should be minimum 5,00 to 1,000 square metres.

Rule 10 in Annexure-IX titled "Fire safety, detection and extinguishing systems" notes how all buildings should, in their design and construction, ensure "the safety of life from fire, smoke, fumes and also panic arising from these or similar other causes". It deals with the provision of facilities to detect fires and warn occupants about the outbreak of fires "so that they may escape, or to facilitate the orderly conduct of fire exit drills". It insists on the installation of systems to protect buildings from fire or to extinguish fires. These installations should be in accordance with the National Building Code and "to the satisfaction of the Director of Fire Services by obtaining a no-objection certificate from them". The CMDA Rules prescribe two staircases for every flat in a multi-storeyed building. Fire and Rescue Service Department personnel would advise the occupants of these multi-storeyed buildings where to install smoke detection systems, sprinklers and extinguishers. They would train the occupants in fire drills every six months so that evacuation would be quick.

"But factors of security undermine all these rules," regretted a CMDA engineer. He said that even if a flat or an apartment complex had two staircases, the residents blocked one because of increasing burglaries and robberies. If there were two entrances to the complex, one would be blocked. All these impeded quick exit of people when a fire erupted, he pointed out. Fire escape routes, which are shown in the building plan, are not provided when the construction is done, he said. Even if the escape route is built, it is converted into rooms later.

The CMDA's counterpart in places outside Chennai is the Directorate of Town and Country Planning. "If it is a public building having a height of 10 m, there should be 3 m of open space all round," an official at the Directorate said. If the height is more, the setback space prescribed is more. Elementary schools up to Class V are allowed to come in what are called primary residential zones because these schools cater to children, and the schools should be close to their homes. If it is a high school, it can come up in what is categorised as an educational use zone.

The tahsildars should issue licences, under the Tamil Nadu Public Building Licence Act, to schools every three years, certifying that the buildings are fit for occupation. Moreover, while an engineer should give a certificate that the buildings are structurally stable, the local bodies should give another certifying that the sanitary facilities available in schools are satisfactory. The rule that tahsildars and local bodies should give certificates led to corruption, alleged private school managements.

At the Sri Krishna School in Kumbakonam, a door in front of the first floor in the thatched portion leading to the staircase was reportedly converted into a wall for accommodating an extra classroom. When the fire started from the kitchen in the rear end, the children were unable to use the opening at the back that led to a separate staircase. Thus, there was only one staircase available for escape. So a section of children at the rear was trapped and burnt to death.

The fire prompted the Jayalalithaa government to issue a fiat that all schools in the State should replace classrooms with thatched roof with non-flammable material before July 30. This has led to school authorities scrambling for asbestos or "lite-roof" material to be used as roofing material. It has also triggered a debate on the wisdom of this omnibus order. School officials point out that thatched roofs are ideal for the tropical climate of India, and they suggest that the government could allow thatched roofs when the building only has the ground floor. Besides, classrooms with thatched roof should have no electrical wiring. The government also ordered that there should be fire drills in all schools every six months. Fire and Rescue Services Department personnel are to conduct these drills and instruct students and teachers in handling equipment to put out fires, quick evacuation and so on.

The Department already has a Fire Prevention Wing, created in 1995, in 12 districts. The personnel of this wing visit apartment complexes, cinema halls, kalyana mantaps and so on and advise their managers where and at what space interval they should install fire-fighting equipment. These men conduct drills. The Fire Prevention Wing should be set up in all the districts in the State, and its men could conduct drills on fire safety in all schools every six months, an official of the department said.

ACCORDING to V. Vaikunth, former Tamil Nadu Director-General of Police, who was also the State's Director of Fire Service and Director of Civil Defence, the Kumbakonam tragedy highlighted the need for training teachers of schools and colleges and personnel working in factories, cinema halls and auditoria in civil defence, especially in the techniques of fire prevention, fire-fighting, handling various fire-fighting equipment and rescue operations. "At Kumbakonam, if at least 10 teachers of the school had been trained in fighting fires, handling fire fighting equipment, quick evacuation of people and first aid, they could have saved so many children," Vaikunth said. He suggested that the personnel of every organisation be trained in the National Civil Defence College, Nagpur, in search and rescue, setting up communication systems, administering first aid, organising relief and so on during floods, earthquakes and fire. The school headmaster could be the Civil Defence Warden.

Vaikunth said that while inspections, rules and norms formed only one side of the picture, what really helped the occupants of a building in an emergency was their preparedness. "Here comes the concept of civil defence," he said. Civil defence means citizens organising themselves to defend themselves. The concept came into vogue in the United Kingdom during the Second World War. During air raids by enemy aircraft, people themselves organised their protection by digging trenches, evacuating injured persons, transporting them to hospitals, setting up communication systems and ensuring the availability of essential commodities. Thus people were mobilised into various groups to do different tasks and in all these the government acted only as a catalyst.

Vaikunth, who was trained in civil defence at the National Civil Defence College, Nagpur, when he was Deputy Commissioner of Police (Law and Order), Chennai, from 1969 to 1971, applied the concept of civil defence in rescue and relief operations when he was Deputy Inspector-General (DIG), Tiruchi range, in 1977 when the four districts in the range were hit by a cyclone and floods. The National Civil Defence Collge, run by the Union Ministry of Home Affairs, has many programmes to train personnel of any department in the concepts of modern warfare, search and rescue, first aid; in setting up communication facilities during natural disasters; in the science of fighting fires including in handling equipment to put out fire and in ensuring orderly evacuation of people; in disaster mitigation during nuclear, chemical or biological warfare; and in detecting and disposing of unexploded bombs. Vaikunth said that when he was the State's Director of Civil Defence and Inspector-General of Home Guards, he sent home guards from the State to Nagpur for training in rescue, relief and rehabilitation operations during natural calamities. He used those trained in civil defence when a train accident took place in Tiruchi.

Vaikunth prepared a comprehensive "Manual of Instructions on the Role of Police in Natural Calamities" in 1982 when he was the Director of Civil Defence. It was published by the Director-General of Police, Tamil Nadu.

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