Meeting fire safety guidelines is not just a matter of compliance but a critical business decision that can help save lives and businesses. Amit Wadhwa makes the case

A large fire at Hotel Arpit Palace in New Delhi in February this year killed 17 people. According to media reports, the primary investigation revealed that the hotel did not follow even the most basic fire safety norms – a rooftop bar was operating without any approval, and the emergency exits were inaccessible.

The deaths were mainly due to suffocation. Some lost their lives trying to jump out of the flame-engulfed building. In response, the authorities went around sealing hotels in the vicinity, and, for a while, discussions about fire safety took centre stage, but this was forgotten as the story moved out of the news cycle.

The Delhi hotel fire was not an isolated incident, and not the only one caused by people flouting basic safety norms. A fire in the Kolkata metro in December last year resulted in injuries to 42 passengers. A probe initiated by the Commission of Railway Safety and the Kolkata metro said that the metro had failed to meet fire safety norms.

In another instance, ESIC Kamgar Hospital in Mumbai, which saw a fire that killed eight people in December 2018, had flammable material stored on the ground floor and had failed a fire safety check in the same month.

Ignorance of fire safety rules can be seen not only in commercial and residential buildings, but even at big events where thousands of people gather. The 1995 Dabwali fire in Haryana where 540 people (mostly children) lost their lives in a banquet hall was one of the worst such incidents in Indian history. The focus at large events is often on the grandeur and lavishness of the sets, and not the safety of the attendees, and the evacuation plan.

The spate of large fires in recent months point to a general failure in implementing fire safety norms, as well as a lack of enforcement by officials. The system has always allowed precautions to take a back seat, at the cost of innocent lives, only swinging into action when there is an incident.

Although the country has made considerable progress with regards to town planning, architecture, facilities and technologies for residents, basic fire safety measures have not received the required attention, even though fires hazards have increased and have become more complex. It is important to have well-established fire laws, and rules and regulation that can act as guidelines on what is acceptable, and to make businesses or building owners accountable.

Keeping up with regulations

The evolution of fire safety laws and legislations can be traced back to the 12th century when the mayor of London forbade the use of thatched roofs due to greater fire risks and instructed that houses be made of stone with a prescribed minimum height and thickness of walls. In India, fire safety is a municipal function under article 243 (W) of schedule XII of the constitution. There are various provisions under state laws for fire safety, such as approvals before construction and after completion, and regular inspections by way of renewal of fire certificates or no-objection certificates (NOCs). The measures mentioned in the state acts, if followed diligently, can ensure the safety of life and property.

On the precautionary, compliance and remedial sides, there are detailed guidelines and laws in place. The National Building Code (NBC) is one of the most elaborate manuals on fire safety, and every state has its own fire safety act, which sets out the do’s and don’ts, and prescribes necessary precautions and approvals along with penalties for non-compliance. Along with prescribing the duties and obligations of each responsible person with respect to fire safety, these acts also set out the requirements of securing fire-specific NOCs regarding the height, area and purpose of the building.

The fire certificate, or the clearance certificate, is issued by the District Fire Service Authority after an inspection. The fire NOC comes with certain requirements to be followed, such as the availability of extinguishers, fire exits, compartmentalization of areas to contain fires, use of fire-resistant material, fire alarms, etc. However, precautions are generally viewed as a tick-box exercise and these provisions only receive attention after a mishap.

Even more worryingly, there are 10 operational metro rail lines in India that are used by hundreds of thousands of people on a daily basis, but there are no specific laws to govern them from a fire safety perspective. Metro rail authorities follow the guidelines of the NBC and US National Fire Protection Association (NFPA).

According to the Manual for Standards and Specifications for Railway Stations, the NFPA overrides the NBC provisions. However, in many instances, these guidelines, too, have been overlooked and there are still gaps between what is prescribed and how it is implemented. A case in point is NFPA 130 (a safety standard for fixed guideway transit and passenger rail systems), which prescribes egress guidelines for evacuation of stations in case of an emergency. However, it has been observed that the emergency exits are locked at many metro stations in New Delhi, which may delay evacuation in case of an emergency. This reflects the poor state of affairs of fire safety laws in India and leaves the public at risk.

Making a business case

The Uphaar Cinema fire in New Delhi in 1997, where the cinema caught fire while a show was on, cost the lives of 59 people and injured 103, a painful reminder of the need for proper implementation of fire laws. The licensee of Uphaar Cinema (brothers Gopal and Sushil Ansal) were saddled with 85% of the compensation liability and 15% of the liability was affixed on the Delhi Vidyut Board, the city’s utility company. The punishment was later reduced by the Supreme Court and a heavy fine was imposed. The Supreme Court ordered one-year imprisonment for Gopal along with a fine of `300 million (US$4.2 million); while Sushil was given imprisonment for nine months and a `300 million fine.

General counsel should ensure that their organizations follow norms not only from a compliance perspective but also to ensure the safety of property and personnel.

The obligation of fire safety compliance in various state laws is joint and several for an owner as well an occupier. This makes it an absolute and strict liability. There have been many instances where the principle of “jointly and severally liable” (which means that all parties are equally liable and compensation can be recovered from any of the parties) has been considered and the owner has been held responsible irrespective of the attribution in the incident.

Following the fire at two upscale restaurants in Mumbai’s Kamala Mills in December 2017, the enquiry by the Municipal Corporation of Greater Mumbai held that “the [building] owners, who had given permissions for the unauthorized use of the terrace areas to these restaurant owners, are equally responsible for the fire and deaths, as they had not taken any fire safety precautions.”

The building owners were charged under sections 304 (culpable homicide not amounting to murder), 337 (endangering personal safety) and 338 (causing hurt by endangering personal safety) of the Indian Penal Code (IPC), read with section 34 for flouting fire norms resulting in the deaths of 14 people. The punishment under section 304 may extend up to life imprisonment along with a fine, and under section 338 it can be a jail sentence of up to two years along with a fine.

The specific penal provisions for non-compliance of state fire laws range from three months to 10 years along with a fine. In case of an offence by a company, the person responsible for the conduct of business for the company shall be deemed to be guilty of the offence in most state fire acts. This makes it a high-risk situation for managing directors or CEOs who oversee multiple offices across the country, as they can be prosecuted for non-compliance or breach of fire laws and regulations in each state in which the company operates. In addition, many state laws have empowered local authorities to seal any building that is unsafe for continued use and stop the supply of basic amenities.

As strongly recommended by the NBC, it is important to conduct periodic fire safety audits. These audits will not only assess the building for compliance with the NBC and legislation enacted by the state governments and local bodies on fire prevention, fire protection and life safety measures, but also help to identify fire hazards associated with day-to-day activities. They can help in making strategies and framing guidelines for internal use, which can reduce potential fire hazards.

A fire can break out unexpectedly at any time or place, despite preventive measures being in place, but that should not stop us from taking these measures. Various fire-fighting equipment are available, but a trained workforce and regular fire drills are a prerequisite to ensuring the effective use of the equipment.

Following the fire safety guidelines as prescribed by different agencies at different times is paramount. The most crucial requirements are ensuring the availability of smoke alarms, access to emergency exits, compartmentalization of areas to contain fire, installation of fire extinguishers, and proper storage of inflammable materials. A liability insurance cover for the property and employees can also help mitigate civil liabilities. Ignoring fire safety measures can lead to major financial losses and impact the company’s reputation, or worse, incur a cost in human life.

Amit Wadhwa is the head of litigation at Max Life Insurance.