Fire-safety has been a lingering concern for the citizens of Dhaka for decades. Of all the major hazards facing Dhaka today, fires pose the greatest risk—congested roads, closely packed buildings, narrow lanes and a general lack of awareness of fire hazards make Dhakaites more at risk of death and injury by fire than any other. In 2016 alone, Dhaka saw over 3,020 fire related incidents with 15 human casualties and 81 injuries, causing over 163 crore Taka worth of financial losses.
However, the Bangladesh Fire Service and Civil Defence (BFSCD)'s capabilities are improving. Formed in 1982 by unifying the three separate departments of the Fire Service Department, Civil Defence Department and the Rescue Department under the Roads and Highways Division, BFSCD has since grown into a modern rescue unit consisting of over 9000 highly trained firefighters, divers and rescue experts. Currently, there are more than 549 stations of the BFSCD operating all over the country. A recent push from the government in response to an increasing number of fire related incidents has led to the procurement of advanced fire fighting equipment, ranging from top-of-the-line fire trucks, fire fighting motorcycles for easy access to narrow lanes and sturdier portable equipment for firefighting teams.
“The Rana Plaza collapse, Tazreen Garments fire and the Nimtoli fire incidents prompted the government to purchase modern equipment. Before, a fire fighter could not enter a burning building—now, thanks to special suits and breathing apparatus, they are able to enter hazardous areas to rescue trapped civilians,” says Brigadier General Ali Ahmed Khan, Director General of the Bangladesh Fire Service and Civil Defence department.
While our firefighting abilities have gone up, not much has changed in the fire hazard awareness aspect among the general populace. People still lack the basic ideas of what constitutes a fire hazard, as well as what to do if a fire breaks out. Many do not know the number of the BFSCD emergency hotline—999—and are unsure of how to act while the rescuers are on-site. Often, onlookers crowd around the location of the incident and obstructs rescuers from operating smoothly and efficiently—so much so that the BFSCD has introduced a team of trained firefighters tasked with crowd control duties.
“The BFSCD has always been ready to provide training and fire drills to private and public institutions. We have also taken up the practice of sending notices and letters to various ministries and civic centres, urging them to partake in fire drills—in an effort to raise awareness and preparedness, ” Brigadier General Ali continues.
While the BFSCD's efforts in educating the general population about fire hazards and rescue operation guidelines are commendable, property developers are not entirely out of the loop either. Almost all of the high-end developers are incorporating modern fire safety guidelines into their buildings, including separate fire-escapes, sprinkler systems at crucial points and multiple fire extinguishers at all floors along with firefighting boxes, as well as instructional signs.
The progress made is not consistent across the city. Depending on the area, the level of fire hazard changes drastically, as do awareness of the issues that lead to incidents like the Nimtoli chemical warehouse fire in June 2010, which left 126 people dead. Lower-income areas of Dhaka, particularly the slums and the areas adjacent to major bazaars, are especially prone to risk alongside older buildings and neighbourhoods, as evidenced by multiple fire incidents in the Korail slum area, Karwan Bazar and certain parts of Old Dhaka. Without a special focus on these areas along with the necessary adjustments to fire fighting strategy and a conscious shift towards policies that enforce fire safety regulations, these areas are vulnerable to a great extent.
“The government's efforts in tackling the fire hazards of Dhaka are commendable, but there's more work to be put in. While there are 13 fire stations all across Dhaka, the BFSCD has proposed setting up satellite stations at strategic locations around the city, so that response times can be cut down significantly. The current spread of fire stations in Dhaka means that a lot of time is spent wasted in traffic—with satellite fire stations, we can do a much better job at saving lives,” Brigadier General Ali adds.