Fire protection in buildings: The state of our (un)preparedness
Ishtiaque Ahmed, S.M. Mahbubur Rahman, Imamul Hassan Bhuiyan, Tanvir Manzur,Ashikur Rahman Joarder, Md. Zahurul Islam, Md. Ashiqur Rahman and Ferdous Sarwar
Fire incidents, in the last few years, seem to have been a common phenomenon in Bangladesh. A society becomes more vulnerable to fire-related accidents with an increase in economic activities and improvement in quality of life. In the context of recent economic development of Bangladesh, frequent occurrences of fire accidents are not surprising and can escalate in future. Almost all the fire incidents in the country are characterised by mismanagement, unpreparedness and negligence of the owners, users and regulators. Recent fire incidents, from Nimtoli to FR Tower to DNCC market, are examples of such laxity in ensuring fire protection measures. Recent fire incidents in the Election Commission building at Agargaon and Minister High-Tech Park at Gazipur clearly demonstrate lack of appropriate fire protection measures even in a nationally important structure such as the Election Commission. This is a clear indication that design professionals lack proper expertise and regulators don't have the capacity to ensure adequate fire protection in new expensive buildings. Such a degree of ignorance and carelessness is highly alarming and warrants immediate planning and execution of a sustainable fire protection strategy for the country.
There is no separate fire safety code in Bangladesh. The provisions for fire design are incorporated in Bangladesh National Building Code (BNBC). The fire protection design guidelines in BNBC are based on the 'satisfy concept' which is a prescriptive concept of code. Such prescriptive design methods are usually satisfactory for new construction projects. However, hundreds or thousands of buildings (e.g. residential, industrial, and commercial) have already been constructed without considering fire protection design requirements. Consequently, the country is facing a unique challenge regarding fire safety. Strict implementation of the fire code in construction of new buildings is required and there is a need to develop and execute corrective measures for existing noncompliant buildings. In general, a performance-based design approach is necessary to transform a noncompliant building into a fire compliant one. Such performance-based designs, as against prescriptive ones, are extremely challenging and require specialist knowledge, skills and expertise of fire protection design. This calls for creating scope to produce fire protection engineers from multidisciplinary engineering backgrounds. No institution of the country currently offers any academic programme on fire protection. Accurate assessment of thermal properties of commonly used local construction, decorative and storage materials is another important requirement that is non-existent in the country. Fire rating of various fire separation and fire suppression systems must also be evaluated properly before their use. Formal education infrastructure on fire protection discipline as well as standard laboratory and rigorous research facilities are of utmost importance to ensure fire safety in the country to prevent and reduce the occurrence of fire incidents in our infrastructures.
Establishing a fire safety institute with state-of-the-art laboratory facilities for fire-related teaching, research, design, testing and investigation is crucial in this regard. In the wake of deadly fire incidents across the country, it has become clear that Bangladesh requires a good number of fire protection engineers and professionals to work in the industrial and other sectors. It would further help to realise compliance with safety codes as well as their continual development, improve preparedness and emergency response, create more awareness among public and ensure the regulating body playing its proper role. If we are to produce our own fire protection engineers with adequate knowledge on fire protection system and safety, it cannot be done without adequate institutional facilities equipped with appropriate laboratories.
The fire engineering and standard laboratories can serve another very important purpose for the country. Due to the heightened hue and cry on the fire safety of different kinds of occupancies, huge quantities of fire protection equipment, such as sprinklers, fire pumps, fire doors, fire extinguishing agents, fire-proof coatings, fire-resistant cables and so on are either being imported or manufactured in the country. All this highly sensitive equipment for fire safety are being installed in different establishments without standard testing. Unfortunately, due to the absence of compliant laboratory facilities, a large number of cheap, non-standard, and non-compliant fire protection equipment is flooding the market. The consequence of our failure to ensure the quality and authenticity of all such fire safety equipment can be fatal and can cause serious setbacks in the economy. The regulators responsible for ensuring fire-safe buildings and installations do not have the required engineering know-how on fire protection. Therefore, in order to prevent this looming disaster, establishing a compliant fire engineering and standard laboratory is of immediate need. Initiatives by BUET faculties to establish a fire safety institute in BUET are yet to get enough attention by our leadership. The concerned authorities need to be proactive and should offer support to establish a dedicated fire safety institute with standard laboratory facilities with local experts under a leading technical university, such as BUET. Compatible with the present trends of economic growth, adequate preparedness for capacity enhancement of our institutions and regulators is extremely important. The nation cannot make sustainable growth without adequate preparedness in this field of engineering.
The authors are faculty members of BUET and members of BUET Fire Safety Program, a multidisciplinary team.