The Mumbai hospital fire shows that India needs to make public safety an absolute value
Firefighters keep reminding people that fire is a good servant but a bad master, and the blaze that engulfed a private COVID-19 hospital in Mumbai’s Bhandup area on Thursday night comes as a reminder of how true that axiom is. At least nine people died as flames and smoke spread through the facility housed in a mall. Coming soon after the fire that snuffed out the lives of infants in Bhandari, again in Maharashtra, the tragedy focuses attention on the failure to make fire safety a systemic imperative in public buildings. There is no clarity on where the inferno originated, and whether the hospital housed in a commercial building under ‘extraordinary circumstances’ for COVID-19 patients was equipped for the purpose.
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The majority of patients were evacuated and admitted to other hospitals. A solatium for the families of the victims has been announced by the State government, and predictable promises to investigate the incident have been made. These steps, though welcome, do little to change the image of decrepitude that marks policies on public safety in the country, and the generally ineffectual nature of inspections and certifications. Fire may be an accident, but the idea of protocols is to prevent it from having a devastating effect on lives and property. It should be pointed out that after a fire in Rajkot last November, the Supreme Court took Suo motu cognizance of the incident and issued directions, one of which was to task an officer with fire safety for each COVID-19 hospital. States have only themselves to blame, if their officers ignore such guidelines, and avoidable fires claim lives.
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Hospital fires are a distinct entity in the literature on safety, since the presence of incapacitated patients, oxygen-suffused environments, plenty of air-conditioning and lack of sufficient physical space creates a devastating combination when disaster strikes. The National Disaster Management Guidelines of 2016 issued by the NDMA address these characteristics, with recommendations on infrastructural and systemic improvements — from comparative to ultimate safety — to reduce the risk of deadly fires. Yet, it is clear that even some of the basic recommendations, such as the availability of open space to move patients in an emergency, are beyond the scope of legacy buildings created for other purposes.
What is feasible is for experts to assess the quality of infrastructure, specifically electrical installations, ensuring the retrofitting of structures with flame retardant materials and triaging of patients to reduce crowding. Recurring infernos should also convince States that they must create scientifically designed public health facilities that meet the needs of populous cities, reversing the policy of leaving this crucial function largely to for-profit entities where the imperative to cure is often pitted against cost and profit concerns.