Ignorance or negligence?
A shocking fire broke out at Korail slum, the largest slum in the city which encroaches upon Gulshan Lake, on March 16, and left thousands of people homeless and wounded. The actual reason of the fire is still unknown but one of the sources being touted for the fire is the burning end of a cigarette. While the fire apparently broke around the slum at around 2:00 am, trained local volunteers and fire fighters reached the place at around 3:15 am, and were able to bring it under control by 7:15 am.
The researchers of Environment Research Unit, and the staff of Field Management Unit of RED, BRAC, including me, visited the affected area to understand the overall situation of the victims. The key concerns of the team were to identify the immediate needs of the affected people, and to identify how we can respond rapidly and more effectively during man-made disasters like this.
The main cause of the fire is still unknown. However, many slum dwellers believe that this could be a case of sabotage. The fire broke out before the break of dawn when most slum dwellers were sleeping. The fire spread rapidly, burning several houses in its way. Residents were made aware of the fire only after announcements were made from the local mosque about the fire. The residents acted swiftly, trying to control the flames by smashing down adjacent structure so that the fire couldn't spread further. Eighteen units of fire fighters were dispatched at the scene, but they could not go near the fire, as the roads were very narrow, restricting entry to the water trucks. They had to thus leave the truck almost half a mile away, and carry the water pipe to the location. Like in the case of the Gulshan DCC incident, it took hours for the fire fighters to bring the fire under control.
The fire broke in the middle of the slum, where the dwellers are relatively well-off when compared to the other areas of the slum. Most houses here were two storied, semi-pucca structures. The losses incurred due to this fire outbreak would thus be greater than previous fire accidents in Korail, since this part of the slum also housed several businesses and shops that lost a large portion of their possessions and assets. When speaking to the slum dwellers, many reported that as power was cut off immediately, they were unable to gather their valuable possessions and were injured while trying to flee their burning homes.
Local development organisations tried to collect donations for the residents, and did their best to distribute the aid amongst them. However, many slum dwellers have alleged that they did not receive any assistance (cash or kind). Despite genuine intentions, this misallocation of resources could most possibly be due to lack of coordination and communication. In this case, the government could have taken the lead to organise the fund raising drive to ensure that the slum dwellers received the amount donated for their rehabilitation.
Another immediate action that could have been taken was offering psychological first aid to the slum dwellers, who were obviously in a vulnerable state, to help them come to terms with this sudden disaster.
This was the third fire to have broken out in Korail slum in the span of a year. Last year, fire broke out in the slum in March and December. While apparently the fire service conducts regular training on primary firefighting techniques with around 200 volunteers in the neighbourhood, it is surprising to note that there are no fire extinguishing equipment in the slum area. What is the use for such training and techniques if the basic equipment to extinguish a sudden fire are not in place?
Necessary long term steps need to be taken to ensure that such accidents don't repeat in the future. First and foremost, it is of utmost importance to install fire extinguishers in several areas of the slum so that residents themselves can take the lead to eliminate a fire when it breaks out. Necessary training needs to be provided to slum dwellers on this front. Moreover, new fire controlling systems should be introduced for narrow alleys and congested areas within the slum. There should also be a permanent source from where water can be pumped easily in case of a fire emergency, especially considering that fire trucks often cannot enter the narrow alleyways. In this regard, as surface water is available near the slum area, water lifting devices, such as power pumps with long hosepipes, can be introduced for quick response by the trained work-force from the community.
Regular trainings on fire outbreaks and other disasters, along with bi-annual fire drills, should be conducted so that residents are aware of what to do in case of an emergency. However, despite all the training, residents would need some additional resources, such as floodlights set near the slum, so that injuries are reduced, and lives and assets can be saved. Moreover, to assist slum dwellers with first aid, an emergency response unit should be established to address such disasters. The government also needs to ensure that in case of such accidents, slum dwellers are rehabilitated as soon as possible, preferably within two days. If that is not possible, their supply of water and sanitation facilities should be ensured within a couple of days at the most.
After the Nimtali tragedy in Dhaka in 2010, there was a lot of talk about developing the fire preparedness system of the country. Recent incidents, however, prove that far more improvement is needed on this front. While the slum dwellers and authorities are concerned about the risk of a fire outbreak, the existing systems for protecting the marginalised and vulnerable people of Korail have not been working effectively for a long time now. This, like many other fire incidents of the country, could thus be called a case of ignorance as well as negligence.
The writer is a researcher on Water and Environment, Research and Evaluation Division, BRAC. Email: [email protected].