India: Theft of fire-fighting equipment tolerated for years

Firefighting efforts at a massive government building fire were hampered by missing nozzles and other equipment


By Sandeep Ashar 
The Times of India 

MUMBAI, India — Even as a probe is on to ascertain the cause of the Mantralaya fire; it has now come to light that Mantralaya officials turned a blind eye to theft of fire-safety equipment.

Fire brigade officials, involved in fire-fighting operations, found nozzles of hose reels missing on certain floors of the building. The hose reels, which are attached to the building standpipe, are used to carry water to extinguish a fire.

It turns out that there is a history of the nozzles, which are made in brass, being stolen from the premises. While correspondences on the theft instances have been made between the public works department (PWD), which is in charge of the building's overall maintenance, and the home department, which handles security related measures, state officials confirmed that no concrete measures have been put in place to plug the theft.

A fire-safety audit, carried out by the Mumbai fire brigade in 2008, had also raised objections regarding "missing nozzles" on certain floors, indicating that such instances have been going on for at least four years now. On condition of anonymity, a PWD official said that instances of theft continued even as the missing nozzles were replaced.

The official however ruled out a theory that the missing nozzles impacted fire-fighting in a major way. "As per out records, most of the missing ones were shut-off nozzles meant to discontinue water supply," the official said. A senior fire brigade officials however maintained that the missing nozzles, along with drying up of wet risers (wet standpipe), hampered fire fighting.

Fire officials, probing the fire, however refused to comment on whether this lapse would be included in their report on the Mantralaya fire. Chief fire officer Suhas Joshi only chose to say that his department was still probing the incident.

On Sunday, meanwhile, PWD employees began razing portions of the fire-ravaged section on the seventh floor. Structural audit reports by an expert team from the National Disaster Management Academy (NDMA), and a private consultant (interim report) had recommended removal of the portion, which along with a section on the sixth floor (including a part of CM's secretariat) was not a part of the original Mantralaya structure, and was subsequently added. The audit reports had revealed that this construction, which was made of light-weight steel material, wilted under the fire attack.

On Monday, eleven days after the fire tragedy, an evacuation drill will be conducted in the Mantralaya premises. Pravinkumar Pardeshi, principal secretary, relief and rehabilitation, said that the idea was to train the staff in orderly evacuation during crisis situations. Officials however said that there would be no surprise element in the drill as this was being seen as a training exercise. Periodic evacuation mock drills are now being planned for Mantralaya and other important government buildings. Senior officials on each floor have been appointed as "field marshals" to coordinate the evacuation exercise. Chief secretary Jayant Kumar Banthia will lead the exercise.

Meanwhile, chief minister Prithviraj Chavan, whose office was among those gutted in the fire, inspected the restoration work and preparation for the evacuation drill, on Sunday. Chavan also attended official work in his office at Vidhan Bhavan later. Even CS was seen reviewing ongoing work at Mantralaya. The work of reconstruction of damaged files and documents has picked up pace. The UD department has reconstructed nearly 400 files so far. Close to 14,000 UD files and 256 housing department files were damaged in the fire.

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