Carlton Towers and Fire Safety

Smoke from Carlton Towers, Bangalore

Smoke from Carlton Towers, Bangalore

I am sure the news about the fire in Carlton Towers has spread now. It happened yesterday (23rd Feb 2010 at around 5PM Indian time). According to reports I am reading, nine are dead and seventy were injured in the incident. Some jumped out of the windows in panic as the sixth and seventh floors were filled with a thick smoke.

Due to my addiction to Google Reader, I usually come to know about news within a couple of hours after it happens. For this incident, though, I got to know about what exactly happened only when I sat down to dinner at around 9:30 PM. I was out of the house at the time it happened. I had gone to tackle a few chores and in one shop, I saw the video of someone jumping from a building playing on a local news channel. I didn’t realize what it was about then. I quickly finished my work and returned home. I only caught this, like I said, when I sat down for dinner.

As expected, TV news kept showing a woman jumping to her death in an infinite loop. We remarked how terrible it must be for the near and dear of the person to keep seeing this. It was terrible for us to watch the lady try to cling on to a cloth and trying to climb down only to slip and fall to her death. As if this was not enough, big bold subtitle told us that the woman falling to death was in fact, a mother of two kids. I can’t imagine what kind of people would enjoy seeing this over and over and over again. I am not against showing such photos and videos but I wish they would keep a sensitive attitude and not carelessly show such videos in background when someone goes on blabbering about what happened. People are obviously irritated by this. My family kept shouting to change the channel when the disturbing video was looped again and again. No one minded it first three times, but when it kept going on after tenth time, it got on our nerves. A tweet I found sums this up nicely:

Dear Deccan Herald: Thank you for the front page pictures of people jumping out of Carlton Towers. Unsubscribed. – @gkjohn

Reading further, I was not very surprised to know that people didn’t have basic knowledge on fire safety or that the fire exits were safely locked. It is also disheartening, but still not a shock, that the fire engines reached half an hour after the first call because of the evening traffic. I have known ambulances to be stuck in traffic and I have seen people moving out of the way but not without reservations. For instance, people try to stick as close as possible to the ambulance when it moves so that they can escape the traffic behind it. This, of course, worsens the traffic situation when many people try to do this. Furthermore, the building seems to violate many safety regulations. I also read that the fire department has sealed the building and cases are booked against the owners. I will not go into more details here, you can read more about this in the pages I have linked.

Next is knowing what to do when a fire breaks out. We had a mock drill in the place where I used to work and it was quite informative. We just got an email that we would have a fire drill anytime in the two days. When we hear the alarm, we have to leave what we are doing and calmly walk out from the building using the stairs. When the alarm actually rang, I was in a meeting for review of my work. We calmly walked out and the general mood was irritation at being called off work. I was wondering if they didn’t think that fire safety training was important enough. I talked to a few people and they were indeed in that impression that this is just another of the time-waster that you have to go through.

Then the training started. It started with a lecture about how its not the fire that kills people, but the smoke. Then the trainer demonstrated certain techniques to crawl out or carry or drag people out of the building. He demonstrated methods where two or more people would grab each other’s arms forming a tight knot that can carry even a heavy person out of danger. This was followed by various kinds of fires and which kind of extinguisher one should use to stop the fire. Different fires (such as electrical, petrol, chemical) have different properties and they require different types of extinguishers. The entire drill lasted about 1.5 to 2 hours and personally, I found it very useful.

I don’t think that the nine deaths that happened yesterday are enough for the average man to take fire safety seriously. The crowd attitude towards such programs is disappointing. You can convince one person or two to take this seriously but the real value is when the crowd participates in such events. A real wake up call is needed for the people to change their attitude and the fire at Carlton towers is far from it.

Photo by Vinu Thomas