On Thursday afternoon, as offices in Delhi’s business and shopping district of Connaught Place buzzed with last-minute preparations for Diwali – office staff put up garlands of flowers and decorative lights and checked lists for gift boxes to be distributed – firefighters at the Connaught Place Fire Station, one of the busiest in the city, were taking stock of their equipment.

Inside his room, station chief Rajesh Kumar Shukla frantically made phone calls. “For us, Diwali is no less than the surgical strikes,” he said. “The drill starts around a month before Diwali. A week before the festival, there is a constant buzz in the mind, ticking down items in an imaginary list, like preparing for some tough exam. After all, we cannot take chances.”

Several firefighters ran in and out of the station chief’s office. On being stopped, one said: “We will miss the deadline. Some equipment is yet to come from the main workshop, and one fire tender is still under repair.”

Last Diwali, the Delhi Fire Services received 290 calls – the highest ever, breaking the previous year’s record of 211 calls.

Though none of these were major incidents involving casualties, the national capital’s 1,300-odd firefighters were kept on their toes, rushing to attend an average of one call every five minutes.

No family time

What does Diwali mean to these firefighters?

A notice inside the fire station perhaps provides the answer. It said: “All kind of leaves – including medical leaves – stands cancelled till November 2.”

In case of an emergency, fire-fighting personnel have to approach the senior officers on duty.

“I have been a fireman for nearly 20 years. I [last] got to spend time with my family during Diwali in 2008,” said leading fireman Ramji Lal Meena. “I remember the year because that was the only time it was possible. That too because my family came here from my village in Alwar district [in Rajasthan].”

His colleague, sub-officer Om Prakash said that he was lucky that he had been allotted accommodation in the fire station premises, where he now lives with his family. “For the last few years, I have at least been able to see my family during Diwali,” said Prakash, “though there was no way I could join them in the celebrations”.

For others, Diwali night is one of mounting dread.

“I can feel my heart pump at times when the alarm rings,” said fire operator Devendra Kumar, pointing at the fire alarm at the station.

His colleague, fire operator Vikas Chauhan, added: “On Diwali night, an anxiety pervades the fire station with a part of our minds constantly focused on the alarm.”

Resource crunch

There are 56 fire stations in Delhi. During Diwali, several temporary stations are set up in order to reduce the response time to a fire incident.

Said Chief Fire Officer Atul Garg: “On the basis of analysis of last year’s calls, we have ascertained 22 hotspot locations this year where fire tenders will be stationed.”

The fire services department in Delhi has strength of nearly 2,200 personnel against a sanctioned strength of 3,600. Of these, around 400 handle administrative work, leaving another 1,800 for on-the-ground business. Discounting a minimum 25% reserve, a little more than 1,300 personnel are available for fire fighting on Diwali across two shifts.

The department has 200 fire tenders, including the latest batch of 10 inducted a few months ago. Of these, at least 10%, or 20 fire trucks, are reserved for sensitive locations like Parliament, Rashtrapati Bhavan, Supreme Court and the Delhi Secretariat, leaving about 180 fire tenders for the rest of the national capital.

According to fire station protocol, at least two trucks must attend one fire call. This meant that the department faced a shortage of fire trucks last Diwali as calls started pouring in.

“We ran out of fire tenders last Diwali, and after a point had to prioritise calls,” said Garg. “We managed resources by diverting fire tenders from one spot to another after refilling their tanks instead of calling them back to the fire station. Some of the teams ended up attending four or five calls at one go.”

Tinder-box dry

Delhi recieves a particularly high number of fire calls during Diwali largely because the festival happens to coincide with a season when the air is tinder-dry, which makes it easier for things to catch fire. Other metropolitan cities like Mumbai, Kolkata and Chennai are relatively humid in the Diwali season because of their proximity to the coast.

But are all Diwali fires caused by firecrackers?

Of the total number of calls we received last year, we came across direct evidence that the fire was caused by firecrackers in 30% of them, said GC Mishra, Director of Delhi Fire Services.

Chief Fire Officer Garg said that the firecrackers that cause the highest number of fire incidents are rockets. They often get diverted from the assumed trajectory and end up entering building premises. “Curtains catching fire from lamps lit during Diwali are common too,” he said.

“There are instances in which people have accidentally blown up cars during Diwali,” said Mishra. “The CNG-fitted ones are the most vulnerable.”

Mishra recalled a past incident in which someone had set up a nearly 100-metre long series of firecrackers without realising that the string passed underneath a parked car. The car caught fire, which firefighters struggled to control.

In another incident, a car caught fire after the driver did not notice a half burnt cracker that exploded right underneath the moving car, said Mishra.