Are our schools safe from fires? What can you do about it?

A park with a river right next to it. Colourful slides, beautiful wall paintings that encourage communal harmony amongst all, and greenery all around. Who would not want to spend some time in such a park?

The answer to this could well be ‘the parents of the 94 children who lost their lives in the tragic fire accident in the Kumbakonam school that they were studying in.’ A totally avoidable accident that has left many parents reaching out for their child only to meet thin air.

The park I just mentioned is at Palakkairai and has been built in memory of these children.

Investigation post the horrific fire revealed that Tthe school kitchen and the nearby classroom had a thatched roof which enabled the fire from the kitchen to spread to the classroom nearby. A single staircase in a school that housed 700 students and an unfortunate lack of fire safety equipment resulted in the fire snuffing out the lives and aspirations of many families within less than an hour.

In simple words, corruption and greed were probably what caused these deaths. One may extend the premise and state that the government is not doing much in this area.

It is however high time we stopped playing the blame game or locking the gate after the horses have bolted.

To their credit, governments at the Central and State levels have been attempting to do their bit. Let us not question the speed and extent of effectiveness here. The purpose of this article is to create an awareness among each of us, which would hopefully translate into action.

According to the National Disaster Management Guidelines – School Safety Policy – February 2016, a publication of the National Disaster Management Authority, Government of India (http://www.ndma.gov.in/images/guidelines/School-Safety-Policy.pdf), Fire Prevention and Fire Safety measures should be part of initial school design, and also require regular maintenance and testing. The following must be ensured:

  • Flammable and hazardous materials sources are limited, isolated, eliminated, or secured.  This  includes  electrical  lines and   appliances,   heaters   and   stoves, natural  gas  pipelines  and  LPG  canisters, flammable or combustible liquids;
  • Exit  routes  are  clear  to  facilitate  safe evacuation  in  case  of  fire  or  other emergency;
  • Detection and alarm systems (especially urban set ups) are working;
  • Fire extinguishers are regularly refilled;
  • Other fire materials and equipment are regularly maintained;
  • Electrical  systems  are  maintained  and operable,  in  compliance  with  fire  safety design criteria (Source: Adapted from IFC EHS Guidelines)

A volunteer conducted a dipstick survey on FB a few days ago. The questions asked were:

  • How fire-safe are the schools that your children / grandchildren / relatives go to?
  • What are the fire safety measures being followed?
  • Does your loved one know what to do in case of an unexpected fire in the school?
  • What would be your suggestions to improve fire safety in schools and / or prevent fire accidents?

Only 5 people responded of which 2 were from the US.

  • One parent had ‘no idea’ of what fire safety measures were being followed by the school his children were going to while another guardian mentioned that fire extinguishers were probably the only measure followed by some schools.
  • Only one head of an institution responded with clear information about the fire safety measures being followed in her school.

It is up to us, the various stakeholders involved in schooling, to translate plans and intentions into reality.

TO A PARENT:

Let me ask you a simple question – are you aware of the fire safety measures being followed in your child / ward’s school?

  • Yes? If so, do share it with us.
  • No? Why not?

Do I hear you say: “My child is studying in a well-known school. I am sure they are taking adequate measures to ensure safety of the children.”

If you have said or thought so, here is what you should do:

  • Make a conscious effort to enquire about the fire safety measures at the school.
  • Is the school following any fire safety guidelines?
  • Do they do a regular trainng on fire safety to the students?
  • Walk around and check if they have fire safe doors in each class, proper signages, fire exits always open, fire extinguishers, designated assembly areas
  • Lastly, insist on them, in case you do not get a satisfactory response to your query., escalate it with the school management

TO A TEACHER:

If you are a teacher reading this, your responsibility is much more – you would be required to wear multiple hats at school – that of teacher, guardian, psychologist, counsellor, disciplinarian, fire captain and security guard. You may just hold the lives of many children in your hands in case of a fire. Your (in)action could well be the thing that separates the children from certain injury and probable death.

Do learn about the actions that need to be taken in case of a fire. Here is what you can do:

  • Ensure all chiildren are aware of fire safety needs- get them trained by the local fire department
  • Ensure all fire exits are always open
  • Ask the school mamangmeent to conduct regular planned foire safety drills and evacuation plans
  • Raise an issue  with the school management if you notice expired fire safety or non-functional fire safety equipment

TO SCHOOL MANAGEMENT:

Are you a member of the School Management? Your responsibility would in such a case be much more than that of the students, parents and teachers combined. Remember, in case there were an accident, you could become liable for negligence.

Do check if the guidelines given by the Supreme Court in its April 2009 ruling (http://mahafireservice.gov.in/Site/PDFs/GeneralGuidelines/SC_Orders_for_School.pdf) are complied with. At the very least:

  • Have suitable fire extinguishers in every classroom, canteen, lab and hall.
  • Ensure that safe gathering spaces like the playground or the assembly hall are clearly identified and communicated to the teachers, school staff and children.
  • Put up clear evacuation plans on each floor of the building
  • Conduct regular and periodic mock safety drills at school
  • Have in place a fire safety committee that comprises of both students and staff members with all of them being aware of what their exact roles are in case of a fire.

The unfortunate fact is that many schools of today are a classic template for fire vulnerability – large number of children, populated buildings, varied age groups and complex building structures.

So, whether you are a parent or a teacher or a member of the school management, do ensure that the children are made aware of what is to be done in case of a fire.

Let us all work towards providing a school environment that is fire safe.

#FIRE KILLS. PREVENT IT.

Sources of information:

http://schooleducation.kar.nic.in/databank/UDISE1516/DistReport1516/11.InfrastructureDetails.pdf

http://nidm.gov.in/PDF/safety/school/link1.pdf

By | 2016-10-19T14:59:06+00:00 September 24th, 2016|Categories: B.SAFE, Child Safety|0 Comments

About the Author:

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Uday Vijayan, Founder & Managing Trustee of Beyond Carlton (www.beyondcarlton.org) India’s first people’s initiative on fire safety. Uday lost his young son in the Carlton Towers fire in 2010 and has been working on making change in the area of fire safety in India.