Safety First

You go to a hospital expecting proper care and attention, but just how safe is the hospital itself? Saima Bhat examines safety standards in Kashmir’s healthcare institutions.

The fire at Kolkata’s AMRI hospital that left at least 90 people dead served as an eye-opener to the government of Jammu & Kashmir. After Kolkata incident Chief Minister, Omar Abdullah issued instructions for a safety audit of all major hospitals in the state. Its preliminary report has revealed that all major hospitals in Jammu and Kashmir lack the proper safety standards, putting thousands of patients at risk.

The audit was intended for 157 hospitals across the state and Dr GA Bhat, Director General of Fire and Emergency Services says, “We were not able to audit all the hospitals as per our own norms as some of the hospitals did not share their building blueprints, layout plans with us and where people cooperated we gave our recommendations but the problem is whenever we give our recommendations they remain on papers only, nothing really happens on the ground.”

Dr Bhat further says, “During the audit, we found SKIMS hospital is the only hospital which was at least having Riser system and the basic firefighting equipment available on all floors but either the pipes were not attached to nozzles or pipes were not available. The system is there but it needs maintenance.” He also says SKIMS hospital is an institute where there is always a heavy rush of patients but they don’t need to panic, as the fire service station near the hospital is always ready for their help. This station has an imported fire tender which costs Rs. six crores and it is exclusively available for SKIMS.

Before the report was sent to the chief minister, hospital management had already started working on the defunct firefighting equipment. Fire extinguishers which are available in almost every ward have been refilled; fire alarms and fire detection equipment are under renovation. Presently, the firefighting systems are put in place, but surprisingly none of them is connected to water sources.

Jang Bahadur Singh, Chief Security Officer SKIMS, who is reviewing the system thoroughly says, “Nozzles attached to the underground water storage were not functioning, but we have directed our engineers and it is going to be functional in two or three weeks. Besides that, we have a different kind of fire extinguishers available for different kind of fires (electric, chemical or others) and if God forbid any bigger incident to happen were to happen, we have two exits on both sides of the wards from where patients can be easily evacuated along with their beds.” SKIMS hospital has an underground water storage tank with a capacity of 250000 litres and a terrestrial tank as well. In this hospital, even a circular has been issued to all officials of the hospital to switch off their room heaters, gas heaters, and air conditioners while leaving their rooms.

According to NBC (National Building Code) part IV and table 23, a hospital is supposed to have fire extinguishers, a hose reel, a wet Riser, automatic sprinkler system, manually operated electric fire alarm systems, terrace water tank, underground water tank and a pump near the underground water storage tank.
But Kashmir’s oldest hospital, SMHS, lacks all these facilities.

Neither any fire extinguisher nor any hose reel can be found anywhere, except the terrace water storage tank. Dr Qazi Masood, Principal/ Dean of the medical college accepts that they lack every facility in their attached hospitals (SMHS, LD, Bones & Joints, Psychiatry, Chest diseases and GB Panth hospital) but he says they will soon renovate it in two instalments. In the first phase, they will install fire extinguishers, for which the government has approved 30 lakhs and in the second phase, they are going for structural changes.

He still feels, “In SMHS hospital there are lesser chances of catching fire as the older buildings were made in spread out manner and if an incident happens it is easy for everyone to jump out of the windows from both sides of the wards as our buildings are either one or two storied, no ward is connected to another ward and there is a space between every ward- so there are minimal chances of human damage.”

And in the hospitals which were recently built, like G B Panth hospital- they were made as per the new NBC norms. However, firefighting equipments were installed but they are not functional and on every floor there is one hose reel but without any pipe and some attendants are using the hose reel box as their cupboards for keeping their belongings. No fire extinguisher was seen in any of the ward, not even in the ICU of the hospital.

While talking to Kashmir Life, Dr. Masood was of the opinion that there are a number of fire extinguishers in the GMC (Government Medical College) as the building is an old structure, mostly made of wood, but when seen there were only two or three extinguishers in whole college.  It seems hospitals and their administrations are making every effort to be up to the mark and be ready for any unforeseen incident; but the condition is worse in district-level hospitals of rural areas and they are at high risk.

Some hospitals are constructed of wood and they don’t even have a single fire extinguisher installed. A Fire and Emergency Services officer who was inspecting a hospital in a rural area had written in a report that “the present structure is under no means acceptable for housing a hospital. Electric fitting, wiring system and not even a water reservoir tank was found in the hospital.” But somehow in the middle of the process, his report was changed to “the hospital is having all fire fighting facilities available,” shares the officer wishing anonymity.

After hospitals- hotels, schools, colleges, universities and banks are under the scanner. In 2011, the Fire and Emergency Services Department had already given their recommendations to schools and colleges for safety measures, but what actually happened on the ground couldn’t be found anywhere.

Meanwhile, most school buildings in Kashmir are without a firefighting system. However, Shugufta Parveen, Directorate of Education, says all private schools have given in writing that they will keep the required firefighting equipment available. For government schools, the Chief Education officers are the authorities who can be held responsible if such kind of issue arises but according to her, there has not been any such incident so far.

Hotels in tourist destination places catch fire easily, as the structures are mainly constructed of wood. Several such incidents had already occurred, but the hotels at such places are yet to be fully equipped to fight a fire incident. “We were never prepared! From the past 20 years, we were not able to develop our infrastructure in a proper manner.

Though I believe it is a basic need in hotels, restaurants, houseboats and even in our houses now that sense has not yet developed fully. But now the time has come to think about these things and install such equipment.  But still, most of our hotels do have fire extinguishers,” says Siraj Ahmad, President Kashmir Hotel and Restaurant Association.

Fire accidents have always created havoc in congested areas where even the fire tenders can’t reach. Such kind of problem usually happens in the most congested localities of the old city like in Kadi kadal, Safa Kadal or in Maharaj Gunj- which was a commercial area and property worth crores reduced into ashes in just a few minutes. Fire and Emergency Service department presently has 167 fire service stations and 500 fire tenders, but due to delicacies of the older city, they are planning to get ten motorcycles that can reach to the spot with pipes, if fire tenders can’t reach the place.

Kashmir falls in the Seismic Zone 5, but most buildings lack basic firefighting mechanisms and preparedness required for being in this zone.  DG, Fire and Emergency Services department says, “We open our eyes when there is havoc otherwise we don’t bother.”

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