Saturday, August 17, 2013

Don't Play with Fire!

The post discusses serious shortfalls in the fire & rescue services in Trivandrum where inadequate equipment and facilities put our city at risk. The bright side is that these can be addressed quickly to build a world-class rescue service via internally generated funds, if the right decisions are taken today.

A string of calamities, be it the devastating floods in Central Kerala or the explosion that sank the INS Sindhurakshak in Mumbai, has grabbed media attention in recent weeks. This is usually the only time when most of us give any thought about what could go terribly wrong around us. The next thought of course is how prepared are we to meet such eventualities. So perhaps this is an opportune juncture for us to deviate a little from the usual development discussions and take a look around Trivandrum and cast a critical eye on our disaster preparedness.

As a city of over 2 Million people, that's home to a whole host of strategic facilities that include India's most important space facility and the country's biggest business park, and which will soon add India's most advanced port to that repertoire, Trivandrum needs to pay a lot of attention to its preparedness to meet disasters, big and small. The list of potential emergencies is scarily long but let's examine one of the most common. 

Prometheus' gift to Man is a good start as any.

Trivandrum already has well over a hundred high-rise buildings, mostly residential, which are home to tens of thousands of people. Hundreds of new buildings are either under construction and will be built over the next few years as the demand for residential units keeps on growing, driven by the rapidly expanding economy of the State Capital. The city hosts massive commercial/industrial facilities including ISRO's sprawling facilities across the city, Technopark, dozens of R&D and educational institutions, industrial parks and multiple transportation hubs. It also has multiple military and paramilitary bases, not to mention the more common fire hazards like fuel storage facilities and filling stations. You'd imagine that the consequent dire need for fire-fighting and rescue infrastructure would be a top priority for the Government.

You'd be completely wrong! The Kerala Fire & Rescue Services (KFRS) is woefully under-manned and under-equipped. For example, there are probably less than 25 operation fire engines to cater to the Trivandrum metro region and a shortage of nearly 200 personnel  in the Trivandrum and Kollam districts alone. The city has just a single rescue tender which carries rescue equipment such as chain-saws and metal-cutters, which proves dangerously inadequate when the KFRS is called out as many 68 times on a rainy day! Most of the fire engines in the State are old and nearing the end of their operational life time, if not already beyond their scrap-by dates. By comparison, Cambridge, Massachusetts has 14 state-of-the-art fire appliances (the technical term for fire engines) and 8 fire stations for a population just over 100,000 people. To achieve a similar level of service, Trivandrum would need over 200 fire appliances!! Well, that might be a slight ask, but let's be pragmatic...

Reaching for the Sky

Among Cambridge's fire & rescue fleet are 4 giant ladder trucks, which are equipped with telescopic ladders that reach heights of over 100 feet (10 floors) to rescue trapped people and to spray water and foam on fires from above.

Ladder Truck 1
Photo Courtesy: Cambridge Fire Department

Trivandrum very likely has more high-rise buildings (10 floors or over) than the entire Boston metro area, which has mostly low and mid-rise buildings, except for in the Central Business District in the heart of the city itself. How many ladder trucks do we have? At the last count, zilch! In the past, the city's fire units had two ladder/aerial platform trucks, but both have been dysfunctional for quite a while now and plans to buy a new one seem to have made no headway.

The type of appliance that Trivandrum desperately needs is a hydraulic platform truck. Various models can reach heights of  32 - 112 meters, or 10 to 30 floors.

Hydraulic Platform Truck
Image Courtesy: London Fire Brigade

Currently, the manual ladders available with the KFRS can reach only up to the third floor or so. Tens of thousands of people live and work beyond the reach of these ladders. For example, most of Technopark's 7 Million SF of operating office space has 8-12 floors on average. Now one would think that such sophisticated gear can be seen only in the ranks of fire departments in the developed world. The truth is that sophisticated fire trucks of this type are in service across most major Indian cities outside Kerala. Even Tier 2 cities such as Madurai have these vital pieces of equipment in operation.

 Hydraulic Platform trucks in Bangalore
Image Courtesy: SSC
One of these costs on the order of Rs 5 - 10 Crores, depending on its reach. Cities like Mumbai and Chennai have over half a dozen of these, even Pune has four already. Trivandrum will need at least two, if not three. One needs to be stationed at the Central Fire Station, to respond to emergencies in the dozens of high-rises in and around the core city. The second unit needs to be deployed at the new fire station at Technopark, where in addition to the 10 Million SF of office space in the park, there are dozens of high rise apartment projects, most of them over 15 floors tall, sprouting up in a 5 Kilometer radius of the fire station. It make sense to have a long reach unit (which can reach up to 20 floors) such as a Bronto Skylift F 61 RPX deployed at this station. (Of course, the even bigger HLA series would be real eye-candy!) The same unit can also respond to emergenices at the ISRO complex and even at the International Airport.

Mumbai Fire Brigade's Bronto Skylift F 61
Image Courtesy: Team
 The world record holder - the giant 112 m reach F 112
Image Courtesy:
The big Skylift trucks have often come under criticism in India because observers have been skeptical of their ability to navigate the narrow, crowded streets of many large Indian cities like Mumbai where skyscrapers are often accessed by side-roads. However, Trivandrum has wider and better roads than most Tier 2 cities and at least a couple of "metros" I know of. Indeed these trucks easily negotiate the winding streets of many historic European and American cities. 
Paying for these monsters will not be hard to digest for our State Government, but there are several pragmatic sources of funding that can be tapped. Every year, at least 2 Million SF (0.2 Crore SF) of high-rise residential buildings are built in Trivandrum. Mandating a one-time cess of Rs 10/SF on all buildings of at least 10 floors will yield Rs 2 Crores per year, a Rs 50/SF cess will yield Rs 10 Crores/year! Even this would be negligible in comparison to the average Rs 3500/SF price of high-rise apartments in the market. To make sure that the cost of the life-saving equipment is not borne only by the residents of new buildings, an equivalent charge can be retrospectively applied over, say, a 10 year period, to older buildings via the annual building tax. Technopark alone adds about 1-2 Million SF of office space each year, a similar one-time charge can fund the acquisition of a F 61 RPX in just the first year or two. Funds raised through these levies can be used thereafter to buy additional fire trucks (the ladder trucks are usually supported by one or two pump/water trucks) as well as to pay for the operating costs of the units. While this mode of funding is not the most ideal from the principle of distributive justice, it's the most pragmatic by matching the cost of providing an essential service to the most immediate beneficiaries of that service. It is also rather straightforward to collect and will make sure that the funds are not lost in the maddening tangle of budgetary red tape (which is doubly applicable to anything associated with the State Capital!).
Special Units 
KFRS has one rescue tender in Trivandrum which, as far as I can recall, also has some limited capability to deal with Hazardous Materials (Hazmat) emergencies. But one unit is far too inadequate to deal with emergencies which range from road accidents, fallen trees, collapsed buildings, oil and chemical spills, gas leaks and so on. A second unit should be available at the Technopark fire station. Rescue tenders carry all sorts of equipment including chain saws, hydraulic and gas cutters, lift bags, boats, breathing equipment and so. Trucks that are equipped with their own hydraulic cranes will prove extra useful in scenarios such as road accidents where vehicles have turned turtle or fallen down off the road. We have become used to scenes of rental cranes being called in when school vans or buses fall into canals. This often takes a lot of time, when mere minutes could make the difference between rescue and a watery grave.

Heavy rescue vehicle with an 8-ton crane
Image Courtesy:

A separate Hazmat response unit also needs to be stationed at Technopark or the Chackai Fire Station to deal with possible emergencies at the ISRO complex, the industrial complexes in Veli, Kazhakkoottam and Thonnakkal and the International Airport. 

 Hazmat Response Unit
Image Courtesy: 
A third location that will need both a rescue tender and a Hazmat unit will be the Vizhinjam deep-water port, when it becomes operational in 2017 or so and starts handling hundreds of thousands of containers that may contain any sort of cargo and also hosts Navy and Coast Guard facilities. The port's fire station will also need its own hydraulic platform truck and several standard fire tenders, not to mention one or more tugs with fire-fighting capability. While the port will pick up most of the cost of the facility, KFRS can bear the rest in exchange for making the units available to respond to emergencies in the vicinity, including densely populated areas like Balaramapuram and Neyyatinkara.

The KFRS also needs to have at least two modern wreckers - heavy duty tow trucks, which can also double as cranes. These are mostly used to respond to vehicular accidents. I believe a venerable tow truck is still in service with the KFRS in Trivandrum but new, more capable vehicles are needed.

Heavy-duty Tow Truck
Image Courtesy:

Since we are typing out a wish list of Santa, here's one more line item. Not many of us know that the prevailing building codes in Kerala, and indeed most of India, call for buildings over a certain height (approximately 23 floors) to have mandatory helipads on their roofs, apparently for fire rescue helicopters to land in the eventuality of a major blaze. The catch is of course that there are no fire rescue helicopters anywhere in India! Air Force and Navy helicopters can be called in wherever they are available, mostly in cities where a military air base is nearby. While a chopper is a very expensive toy, it does make a lot of sense to have one which can be shared by the police and the fire & rescue service. It's very likely that the craft would be overwhelmingly used by the former, mostly for surveillance purposes but would still be available to respond in minutes should a high-rise inferno break out.

On the subject of things that fly, is the Trivandrum International Airport fairing any better in terms of its fire and rescue capability. On a bright note, the answer is yes. The State Capital's airport was one of the first in the country to deploy the state-of-the-art Rosenbauer Panther Airport Rescue and Fire Fighting (ARFF) vehicle, six of which are on duty to respond at lightning speed to any emergency in the busy airport.

 Rosenbauer Panther 6 X 6 ARFF
Image Courtesy:

More Fire Stations 

While on the subject of new fire stations, it may make a lot of sense to rethink the current strategy of having a few fire stations, some with a large number of tenders (4 or more in the case of the Central and Chackai locations), each serving large areas. Trivandrum only has 6 or so fire stations - including Central, Chackai, VSSC, Technopark, Vizhinjam, Nedumangad, Neyyatinkara and Attingal. This means that the average response time to reach an incident is often 10-15 minutes or more, especially during rush hour. In contrast, the strategy in the US is to have a large number of fire houses, each with 1 to 3 fire appliances, distributed across the urban area. Again, using Cambridge as an example, there are 8 fire houses within an 18.5 Sq. km area which is miniscule when compared to the 400 Sq. km area of the Trivandrum metropolitan area. Ideally, there should be one fire house, with 1 to 3 fire engines located at distances of 4 - 6 Km from each other, enabling response times of 5 - 10 minutes to any emergency. Serious situations requiring the response by a hydraulic platform truck or a heavy rescue tender can be handled from a main fire station. Eventually, a hydraulic platform truck should be stationed in every fire house in a high-rise neighborhood. Of course, finding the land for the new fire stations will not be easy but by intelligently existing Government-owned premises such as offices, hospitals, police stations and schools, this can be achieved without the need for major land acquisition. This has to be accompanied by the roll-out of automatic fire alarm systems and the establishment of fire hydrants across the water network.

The total outlay for modernizing the fire & rescue force in the city will work out to about Rs 50 Crores over the next 2 to 3 years, including the acquisition of the new equipment and the construction of new facilities. Daunting as this figure sounds, it pales in comparison with some of the ongoing and planned infrastructure investments in the State (no, I am not going to refer to that Rs 1,50,000 Crore bullet train yet again....wait, I just did! Oh well..) and it can be mostly funded from direct sources as described previously. The cost of not making these judicious decisions will be measured in lives, and that's not something that can be conveniently fitted into a cost-benefit analysis on an Excel sheet.

Well, the idea for this post came out of my fixation with big, red fire engines barreling down the road with their flashing lights and wailing sirens (I used to tag them on my bike and Towering Inferno and Backdraft are two of my favorite movies!). However, this is a very real issue that a growing city needs to deal with sooner rather than too late and some smart decisions made today could avert a tragedy which is usually only a question of when, not if.

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