October 22nd, 2020
By Rehan Piracha
Fire incidents such as the one in Hafeez Centre will continue to happen unless the provincial and city government take serious notes to enforce the Building Code of Pakistan Fire Safety Provisions 2016, says Tariq Moeen, secretary of the Fire Association of Pakistan.
Moeen says the Fire Safety Provisions 2016 provides a unified system of fire prevention, fire protection and life safety standards for safeguarding human lives and reducing material loss to residential, commercial and industrial buildings in the country. Unfortunately, the provisions have rarely been implemented, causing billions of rupees loss as well as human fatalities in scores of fire incidents in metropolitan cities. Moeen says fire safety is a low priority with the governments, city officials, plaza owners and business owners. “Even if you visit just the surrounding plazas around Hafeez Centre, you will find scant fire safety measures,” he adds.
The fire safety provisions provide detailed measures for prevention of fires in high-rise commercial buildings according to international best practices. According to the Fire Safety Provisions 2016, commercial multi-storeyed buildings ought to have automatic smoke alarms, water sprinklers, designated fire towers, separate lifts for firemen and designated emergency exit pathways.
Moeen says the Building Code of Pakistan Fire Safety Provisions 2016 was prepared by the National Engineering Council with the collaboration of the National Disaster Management Authority. He says big corporations and multinational companies have started enforcing the building code fire safety provisions but city authorities and provincial governments have not done so. Unless, the authorities start enforcing and implementing the fire safety provisions incidents like the fire in Hafeez Cenetre and elsewhere will continue to cause immense loss in property and human lives, he adds.
Civil defence officials in Lahore claim that the office had issued a notice to the union of the Hafeez Centre about lapses in fire fighting equipment and fire safety measures on August 18. The union representatives had pleaded that due to the COVID lockdown the shopkeepers were financially constrained and unable to afford expenses in upgrading fire equipment and other measures. Civil Defence official Khalid Shahzad says the union representatives had demanded a three-month grace period but his department had insisted that at least the shopkeepers should take preliminary measures such as refilling expired fire extinguishers.
However, Muhammad Bilal, vice president of the Hafeez Centre union, says fire extinguishers were in working condition, adding that the union representatives and shopkeepers had initially use extinguishers and fire water tank in a bid to control the fire. He says the building was built thirty years ago and standard operating procedures adopted then could not be expected to be at par with current requirements.
On the other hand, Lahore Development Authority is assessing the structural damage caused to the multi-storeyed Hafeez Centre, one of the biggest and famous shopping places for cell phones and computers in the province. LDA official Habibul Haq says his team of engineers has visited the charred building for assessing damage to the structure. In the coming days, the team would be conducting tests to check whether the structure is safe enough to allow rehabilitation work. He says the report on structural damage assessment will be completed by the first week of November.
According to union representatives, the building had about 1000 vendors in its premises doing billions of rupees in sales of cell phones, accessories, computers and laptops. Bilal says close to 160 shops were burnt in the fire, adding that the loss of stock alone could be close to Rs 300 million. The plaza closure has left about 8000 people unemployed. He requested the government to reopen the building as soon as possible to save the livelihood of thousands of families connected to the cell phones and computers market.
According to Imdad Hussain, a public policy expert and director of Punjab Urban Resource Centre, fire incidents like Hafeez Centre are the result of lack of compliance to rules and regulations, adding that the building had more shops than it was designed for initially. Hussain says another issue is that of jurisdiction, like for instance Wapda, LDA and Civil Defence have their own sets of rules to follow. A civil defence official cannot tell a Wapda official about the hazard posed by dangling multiple electricity wires in a plaza, he adds. On the hand, the powerful traders’ lobby detests any sort of enforcement or checks which to them means another hand to grease, he says. Unless all the stakeholders come together, the implementation and enforcement of building codes and fire safety provisions would remain a dream in the country, Hussain says.