Latest Kerala Local News: The fire and rescue service did not provide a minimum of fire safety

Kasaragod: Apart from the high-profile drill simulations that the fire and security department conducts in schools and colleges, does it guarantee “minimum fire safety standards” in educational institutions?

Apparently not. A stubborn MSW student discovered through RTI queries that the fire stations don’t even have a list of schools under their jurisdiction.

In March 2016, the then Director General of Fire and Rescue Services, Loknath Behera, issued a 36-point circular to ensure minimum fire safety standards in educational institutions and instructed all divisional officers and divisional NCOs to ensure that the circular is adhered to. Officers have been tasked with ensuring that buildings implement the pointers within 30 days. “If they do not comply, send a report to headquarters to take the necessary action,” the note reads.

Seven years later, the Kasaragod fire officer said in an RTI response that he was still collecting data on the number of educational institutions that ensured minimum safety standards. “I’m sure the situation is the same in all districts, but I didn’t have the money to send RTI queries to 14 district firefighters in the state,” said MV Shilparaj, a sophomore MSW student at Payyannur Campus of Sree Sankaracharya University of Sanskrit.

When he got ‘no’ to almost all of his questions about fire safety in schools and colleges, Shilparaj took up the matter with the regional fire officer in Kannur.

On July 21, Regional Officer Renjith P wrote to the Kasaragod District Fire Officer to take action to comply with the 2016 guidelines, given RTI’s response that “the majority of educational institutions in Kasaragod have not provided minimum fire safety standards”.

What triggered the student

Shilparaj took up the cause in January when he visited Kannur Medical College in Pariyaram, where his father Ravindran MP worked as an artist and his mother Usha KV works as a data entry operator. “I was waiting for my parents when I lazily checked the fire extinguisher hanging on the wall,” he said.

The fire extinguisher expired almost a year ago and had not been recharged. Shilparaj sent a letter to the Payyannur fire station office the same day with a picture of the fire extinguisher. “This fire extinguisher expired on 08.02.2022…Order the institute to refill the fire extinguisher in 15 days and take appropriate action in case of violation of the rules,” he wrote in the letter.

He then sent an RTI query to the Fire and Rescue Headquarters in Thiruvananthapuram to find out whether educational institutions in the state were meeting minimum fire safety standards.

The headquarters responded by saying that fire safety and life safety requirements were mentioned in the National Building Code of India 2016 issued by the Bureau of Indian Standards, as well as Kerala Municipal Building Regulations and Kerala Panchayat Building Regulations. The department has not issued specific instructions about having fire extinguishers in buildings, RTI’s March 14 response says, ignoring the 2016 circular.

On what can be done if a building fails to meet fire safety requirements, the fire department said it will notify the relevant local body, which is the licensing authority, and request follow-up action.

In June, the department ordered Shilparaj to write to all 14 firefighters in the district for information on school fire safety.

Since he had no money to send requests to 14 districts under the Right to Information (RTI) Act, he chose Kasaragod, his home district.

On July 4, the Kasaragod district fire officer responded saying that the district has four fire stations – in Kasaragod town, Kanhangad, Kuttikol and Uppala.

There are 110 schools under the Kasaragod fire station, he wrote. “But the department did not have data on the number of schools under Kanhangad, Kuttikol and Uppala fire stations, let alone on fire safety,” Shilparaj said.

Picking up on Shilparaj’s letter, Kannur Regional Fire Officer Renjith instructed the District Fire Officer to write to the Kasaragod District Education Officer to ensure minimum fire safety standards in schools.

But Shilparaj said the 2016 circular required fire and rescue officers to visit establishments and ensure standards.

In the circular, the then chief executive wrote that checks carried out by the fire and rescue service revealed that “fire safety and firefighting measures are insufficient in most buildings. Either firefighting equipment does not exist or does not work”.

“It is highly desirable that each building type have at least minimum fire safety measures,” the memo says, listing requirements for different building types.

Some of the safety guidelines for educational institutions listed in the memo were as follows:

Ensure an adequate number of fire extinguishers with periodic maintenance; the expiry date must be stamped on it.

Properly maintain the hose reel and nozzle

Ensure hydrant valves and distribution hoses are fitted with appropriate washers

Manually operated fire alarm systems, sprinklers and detectors should be monitored, maintained and records should be kept.

Fire pumps must be in working order, properly maintained and connected to other power sources.

The automatic fire pump system must be in working order at all times.

Firefighting and emergency operations awareness courses should be arranged for students in consultation with fire stations and these records should be kept.

Schools should prepare emergency plans and post them on each floor.

Evacuation drills should be carried out periodically and records kept.

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