Fire Safety Gaps Turning Himachal Schools, Hospitals Into Tinderboxes: CAG Report

A performance audit report by the comptroller and auditor general (CAG) has revealed glaring lapses in the fire safety norms at government schools and the hospitals across Himachal Pradesh.

As per the report, which was recently tabled in the state assembly’s budget session, the fire department informed that out of only 55 of the state 2,806 government schools had obtained fire no-objection-certificates (NOC) during the 2018-21 period. Alarmingly, none of the 99 major government hospitals in the state had not obtained the same from the department.

The Supreme Court of India has in its 2009 order directed every school to obtain mandatory fire NOC in the aftermath of a fire incident at a school. Similarly, the Union ministry of home affairs had also issued guidelines to all states, directing regular inspections of hospitals and nursing homes to ensure compliance with National Building Code’s (NBC) fire safety norms.

The report observed that the Himachal Pradesh Fire Fighting Services Act, 1984, empowers the department to enter/examine premises for compliance with fire safety norms, but lacks provisions to enforce compliance and penal provisions for non-adherence to norms. In view of the same, defaulters continued to have a free pass, putting the lives of students and those working at/visiting these institutions at risk.

The report also states that the department had not conducted vulnerability analysis of fire-vulnerable buildings. Databases of hazardous industries, high-rise buildings despite the PAC’s recommendation for identification were also found missing.

It is worth mentioning that the National Disaster Management guidelines recommend provisions in the legal framework/Fire Act of the state requiring mandatory department clearances for all high rise buildings, colonies, residential clusters, business centres, malls, etc.

The report further revealed that 23 test-checked fire control centres did not have adequate and reliable sources of water. Meanwhile, only 85 fire fighting vehicles were found available against an approved fleet strength of 115. “The shortage in firefighting vehicles was concomitant with surrender of budget amounting to ₹6.22 crore received for motor vehicle purchase during 2018-21, indicating that the department had not adequately planned for purchase of firefighting vehicles despite shortage,” the audit observed.

Against a sanctioned strength of 938 posts for operational staff, 257 (28%) posts were lying vacant, adversely impacting the capacity of fire control centres. Also, only 728 personal protection equipment (PPE) kits for firefighters were available against the required 5,055. It was also found that the department did not conduct any physical assessment test for firefighters in the 2018-21 period.

In another worrying revelation, the audit found that the unique toll-free number (101) assigned to attend first information about fire incidents had not been made available in any of the fire posts across the state – adding that the same could well result in information delay and response time.

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