At least eight people including a two-month-old infant have died and more than 140 people have been injured in a fire that broke out at the the ESIC Kamgar Hospital in Mumbai on Monday afternoon, once again highlighting lax fire safety measures at India’s hospitals. The hospital did not have a no-objection certificate from the fire department due to technicalities.

Some news reports said that the ESIC Kamgar Hospital had failed a recent fire safety test. But MV Ogale, deputy fire officer at the Maharashtra Industrial Development Corporation, under whose jurisdiction the facility falls, clarified that the accident occurred in the hospital’s old building while the audit two weeks ago was in the new building. Ogale said that the old building was built in 1973-’74 and that the corporation’s fire department did not have to inspect it for safety.

“Today’s building bye-laws cannot be applied retrospectively,” he said. “It is up to the owner or occupier to get an NOC [No Objection Certificate] and get fire audits done.”

Earlier, Mumbai mayor Vishwanath Mahadeshwar told reporters that the MIDC is responsible for the fire audits since the hospital is in the industrial zone that it administers. However, Ogale said that the MIDC would have had to conduct inspections of the old building if there were structural upgrades made to it. But there was no application by the hospital for any such upgrade, he said. The department had conducted an audit of a new building on the hospital premises and it was for this building that an NOC was pending till minor rectifications can be made.

Ogale claimed that the old building where the fire broke out was fitted with the required fire safety equipment, such as extinguishers, hydrants, sprinklers and alarm systems. He admitted that the building did not have floor plan maps or signage to point towards fire exits. He did not comment on where exactly the fire started or what had caused it.

However, former fire adviser to the government, Om Parkash said that there were clear indications of fire safety measures not being followed even from the TV visuals of people being evacuated. “It was shocking to see people being brought out through the windows on the fire brigade’s ladders,” he said. “This means that there was no other exit through which they could come out. Maybe the exits were locked for security reasons but that is also against the regulations.”

In fact, according to news reports, one of the dead is a woman who fell from a crane while being rescued.

The ESIC Kamgar Hospital may not be the only hospital in Mumbai that has not been cleared for fire safety. The Indian Express reported in June that in response to a question by a corporator, the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation said that as many as 11 civic-run hospitals and healthcare centres have faulty or non-functional fire safety equipment and so have not been given no-objection certificates.

Officials at the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation refused to comment when asked them how many hospitals in Mumbai currently do not have fire clearances.

Tragedy on repeat

The ESIC Kamgar Hospital fire is the latest in a list of hospital fire accidents in recent years.

  • In December 2011, 89 people died in a major fire that broke out in Kolkata’s AMRI Hospital.
  • In January 2013, four infants were injured in a fire at PBM government hospital in Bikaner.
  • In November 2015, one newborn sustained injuries and other had a narrow escape when a ward at Shishu Bhavan Hospital in Cuttack was engulfed in flames.
  • In October 2016, 26 people died and more than a 100 injured in a fire at the SUM Hospital in Bhubaneswar.
  • In July 2017, 800 patients and medical staff had to be evacuated from the King George’s Medical University in Lucknow after a fire broke out in its trauma centre.
  • In January 2018, two patients died in a fire at the Sai Hospital in Bareilly district.

Dr N Suresh, head of the Building Fire Research Centre at the National Institute of Engineering in Mysore outlined the fire risks in hospitals. “In hospitals, you have more combustible material like linen and stores gases and so there is a greater risk of the spread of fire,” he said.

But that is also why National Accreditation Board of Hospitals and Healthcare Providers or NABH has issued minimum fire safety measures for hospitals of various sizes based on the regulations in the National Building Code of India, 2005.

The NABH’s basic fire checklist includes having fire fighting equipment of all types and sizes available, and operational maintenance plan for the equipment, up-to-date fire drawings, fire and smoke detectors on all floors, central fire alarm systems, fire exit plans for each floor with openable exit doors, well-illuminated fire exit signage on all floors, emergency illumination systems, designated places for assembly of patients and staff and regular fire drills.

Suresh said that from the repeated incidents of fire in hospitals, it is evident that few of these guidelines are being followed. “For instance, in hospitals, how many people know who needs to be evacuated first?” he asked. “Some patients may be movable but many may not be movable.”

In Maharashtra, fire safety is also regulated by the Maharashtra Fire Prevention and Life Safety Measures Act, 2006.

Parkash said that Mumbai had seen so many fires in recent years in hospitals restaurants and other establishments that it shows a complete collapse of fire safety systems.

“This is a failure of the government and of the fire department,” he said. “ It is carelessness by building owners. No responsibility is fixed.”

With inputs from Aarefa Johari.