Who is to enforce fire safety? Fire Service, Rajuk, or city corp?

It was a leap day with special offers that drew more young foodies on Thursday than usual into city eateries. The offer of Kachchi Bhai, a new social media craze for biriyani, was even bigger, 20% discount as it opened an outlet in the Bailey Road building that caught fire and left 46 dead.

Only then, it was learnt that the building had neither a fire-fighting system, nor any fire exit. Gas cylinders were stored on its narrow staircases along with other stores.  This staircase turned into a furnace soon after the fire started, which officials initially suspected to have originated from a ground floor cylinder.

“There was no fire extinguishing system in the building. There was only a narrow staircase,” Brigadier General Md Main Uddin, director general of Fire Service and Civil Defence, informed the press in front of the building on Friday.

Thirteen fire-fighting units struggled for two hours to put out the inferno and rescue people trapped inside the building and on its roof last night. By then, 46 were declared dead and 21 others lay injured in the burn unit, some stated to be critical.

The authorities, like similar such fatal fire incidents in the past, started rushing to the spot to blame each other for negligence in enforcing fire safety compliance.

The six-storey building Green Cozy Cottage on Bailey Road housed eight restaurants, along with a juice bar and a cafe. There were also showrooms for mobile phones, electronic equipment, and clothing, but fire safety protocols were ignored.

The building housed restaurants “where we saw gas cylinders”, the Fire Service DG said, explaining why the fire spread quickly and burned intensely.

Soon after the fire broke out, these gas cylinders turned the stairs – the only means of escape – into a chamber of death.

Fire service can only “serve notice”

The fire service chief said they had previously issued three notices asking the building owner to comply with fire safety measures.

The statement was similar to the one made after the Bangabazar hawkers’ market fire in April last year, saying that the market authorities were warned more than 10 times in six years to enforce fire safety measures.

Fire service officials claim they can only serve warning notice.

Building laws flouted

Dhaka South City Corporation Mayor Sheikh Fazle Noor Taposh, who visited the spot yesterday, said the building was constructed in complete violation of building code which requires buildings having more than five storeys to have two staircases with one designated for emergency use.

Asked how restaurant owners and other businesses set up in unplanned buildings secured trade licences from the city corporation, the mayor said there were no flaws in issuance or renewal of trade licences. Building laws were flouted there, he pointed out.

“We found on inspection that despite being a 10-storey building, there is one staircase and that staircase is also not wide as per the prescribed standard,” the mayor said.

“We have sent a policy to the government making it mandatory to take permission from the city corporation for construction and reconstruction of buildings,” Mayor Taposh said, hoping that the policy will be approved.

Did not have approval for restaurants

The Rajdhani Unnayan Kartripakkha (Rajuk), which is responsible for approving building designs in the city, yesterday said the commercial building did not have permission to set up restaurants.

The building had permission for office use, not for restaurants and eateries, RAJUK’s Chief Town Planner Ashraful Islam told over the phone in the evening.

Ashraful Islam said, “Hamida Khatun Gong and Amin Mohammad Group took the approval for the building on 7.5 katha of land. The structure has approval for a seven-storey commercial building.

“However, it is not designated for restaurants, showrooms, or any other similar ventures, but for office use,” the official said, finding it a violation of law.

Building codes differ from agency to agency, making it easy for owners to flout and for agencies to skip responsibility and shift blame.

Rajuk approved the building with one staircase as it categorises buildings above 10 storeys as multi-storey structures.

However, the Fire Prevention and Fire Fighting Act finds a building exceeding six stories must have fire exits, and two staircases, while city corporation guideline requires a building above five storeys to have two staircases.

Fire safety system costs little, saves big

“Fire incidents may take place anytime, anywhere. There must be fire safety measures in place,” said Mahmudur Rashid, vice president of Electronics Safety & Security Association of Bangladesh (ESSAB) that represents fire safety equipment dealers.

He feels separate permissions should be made mandatory for restaurants in commercial buildings. Fire-safety issues for restaurants are different from those for residential and commercial buildings, he said.

Global fire-safety code prescribed measures for restaurants like fire alarm, visible exit signs and all exits free of debris—none was present in the Bailey Road building.

Fire does not spread and burns everything in seconds, people can have time to evacuate if a minimum fire-safety system is in place, Mahmud said. 

He added that restaurants spend a substantial amount on decoration and sales promotions, but care little about fire safety.

Restaurants with big brands, though few, are aware of the kitchen safety and they install common fire safety devices such as fire alarms, fire door and hose pipe – all automated. These preliminary devices are available in the market and do not cost much, Mahmud pointed out.

For a medium-sized restaurant, an automated fire suppression system with initial response might cost Tk5 lakh, close to the monthly rent for such a food outlet, Mahmudur estimates.

As a thumb rule, a complete fire-safety system costs 2-2.5% of a building construction cost. For a Tk10 crore building, fire-safety devices worth Tk20-25 lakh should be sufficient, he said.

“Not a single person might have died in the Bailey Road building if there were at least a fire alarm and the exit was clearly marked,” he said.

As food habits are changing fast and more people, youths in particular, like to dine out, eateries mushroomed in the city. Many new names appear in the food world and rise to sudden prominence through social media campaigns. But very few of them care about the safety of their staff and visitors, as restaurants are vulnerable to fire incidents from active kitchens.

Md Saleh Uddin, deputy director, Fire service and Civil Defence Dhaka Division told TBS like the Bailey Road building, eateries in other areas of the city have similar fire safety risks. “We will intensify our drive to notify restaurants about fire risks,” he said.

Like the fire service agency, Rajuk also completes its duty by serving notice. “We cannot do more. Different agencies are authorised to shut down non-compliant businesses” the official said.

Faulty cylinders?

Imran Hassan, general secretary of Bangladesh Restaurant Owners Association, points finger at the gas cylinders they use. “Kitchen gas cylinders are supposed to have three-layer protection. How can we know if cylinder makers ensure the quality?”

However, Imran said, his restaurant chain is among the eateries that meet fire safety compliance.

Syed Mohammad Andalib, owner of Baburchi Restaurant, suggests commercial buildings must have central gas supply systems for restaurants to reduce risk of fire from gas cylinders.

Unplanned buildings put Bailey Road on fire risk

The feature is more or less common for most of Bailey Road’s roughly 30 commercial buildings that house about 150 food shops and 50 clothing stores. None of them have an emergency exit.

Adjacent to the fire-ravaged building, there is a 14-storey building which houses food outlets like KFC, Pizza Hut, Secret Recipe etc. on the lower floors and residential flats on the upper floors. The building has two lifts but only one narrow staircase. No emergency exit is there.

A food shop employee, who did not wish to be named, said they were in fear of dying by fire. “Cylinders used in restaurant kitchens are stored in staircases and below. We are scared when fire breaks out.”

There were restaurant workers among the dead in the fire on Thursday. 

Another nearby five-storey building, which houses Cafe Bailey Bistro on the first floor, has only one staircase and no emergency exit. There are restaurants on three floors and most of them use gas cylinders, says an employee who does not know if the building has permission for restaurants. 

Another multi-storey building, AQP Shopping Mall, houses eateries such as Nababi Voj in four lower floors and residential flats in upper floors.

Sabina Yasmin, a local resident, said, “We eat there with our families frequently, but never worry about fire safety. We have been worried since the deadly fire.”

The commercial-cum-residential buildings are permitted to rent for offices, not restaurants, said Rajuk’s chief town planner Ashraful Islam, solely blaming building owners for breaking laws.

ESSAB Secretary General Zakir Uddin Ahmed said most of the Bailey Road commercial buildings were without fire safety and exit.

“We have urged official agencies several times to ensure fire safety in commercial establishments, but with no effective effort is in sight,” he said.

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