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Emergency response in Colomb: Pettah and built-up areas a fire hazard to the city: Colombo Fire Chief

Emergency response in Colomb: Pettah and built-up areas a fire hazard to the city: Colombo Fire Chief

09 Nov 2023 | By Asiri Fernando

  • Lack of regulatory compliance and fire preparedness in Colombo is concerning
  • Calls for greater awareness and adherence to building code and fire regulations 

The recent fire in a Pettah six-storey building – which later claimed the life of one and put nearly 25 persons in hospital earlier this month – has once again shifted the spotlight to the fire hazards which have been left unchecked in many of Colombo’s densely populated and built up areas. The Colombo Fire Brigade, the city’s first responder for fire and rescue points out that lack of fire preparedness and fire awareness puts lives at risk. So does, crowds gathering to “view” and “shoot” such crisis situations, they become more of a hindrance than help.  

In an exclusive interview with The Daily Morning, the Chief Fire Officer of the Colombo Fire Brigade, also known as the Fire Services Department of the CMC, Kamal Wilson explained the risks involved and how his team of firefighters take on such challenges. 

Following are excerpts from the interview:

How did your fire department respond to the tragic fire which occurred in Pettah recently? 

We received a call about the fire at 0936 hrs in the morning and we immediately dispatched two fire engines to the locations. By the number of calls we received, we realised that it was a serious situation. After many years of service, we learn to read the calls and respond accordingly. Our first response team was dispatched by 0938 hrs, in less than two minutes. 

Luckily, since it was 0938 hr the traffic congestion in Pettah had reduced and the normal foot traffic of vendors and shoppers had not yet begun. So, we could respond quickly, and I must say we had the fullest support of the Police department who helped us clear the route for the fire engines. We had good coordination and communication with the stakeholders and our response time was good. 

However, when we got the dispatch call we had very little information to work with. When on scene we realised the lower levels of the six-storey structure was already ablaze. We did not have a head count on how many people were in the structure. Mind you, the structure was so closely built next to the other, there was no fire gap and we were concerned about the fire spreading. 

We were told there may be around seven or eight staff members inside, however, we realised that there were more in the upper stories, so we immediately deployed our specialist ladder vehicle which has a retractable arm which can reach up several stories with a “bucket” platform from which we can both firefight and effect rescue missions. And that’s what we did, it was a two prong approach, we were fighting the fire while rushing though it to get to the victims as soon as possible. 

Most importantly, our quick response enabled us to reach all of the staff members who were trapped inside and suffering from smoke inhalation, some were unconscious. We are glad we were able to save them (the interview was recorded before one of the hospitalised victims succumbed to their injuries, days after being hospitalised). If we were another 5-10 minutes late,several lives may have been lost. One of the greatest dangers in a fire is the smoke, and heat. For a human being, the effects of smoke are quick and hard-hitting. Many of the victims who were rescued were suffering from smoke inhalation and related respiratory issues. Many had to be carried out of the building. We had Ambulance on standby, which helped to quickly move victims to get the medical care they needed. 

Our officers have to brave the burning building to find them. We fire-fight either on a defensive or offensive posture, if no lives were at risk we would fire-fight in a defensive manner, since there were many lives at risk we go on the offensive, where the firefighter disregards some of the risks he faces, and enters a burning building. In such a situation, our priority is getting the citizens out. So, in Pettah, we split into four teams; two were tasked with fighting and controlling the blaze while the other two entered the building to look for the people trapped inside. 

When responding to the fire in Pettah, were there any challenges your firefighters faced?

Pettah and several other highly built-up areas in and around Colombo are difficult locations to fire-fight in. Firstly, there is fire hazard in the unplanned way Pettah is built up, they have not followed the standards, as such there are no fire gaps, or adequate fire preparedness. Many buildings in Pettah are woefully inadequate in fire preparedness, some even lack effective fire escape routes, which was the case in this fire too. Many lack basic fire-fighting means. There have been times that we have had to cut telephone lines which have been strung in an irregular manner to stop them from obstructing us using our ladders to reach people in higher elevation. Imagine if it was pirated power lines, the risk to fire fighters by such hazards are enormous. We have to call in the CEB to deal with them, and that can cause delays. 

Secondly, the streets are very narrow, which makes it difficult for the fire engines and bowsers, and the specialist vehicles like the ladder truck to manoeuvre into place to effectively fight a fire. Another issue was the number of street vendors, they take up what little sidewalk there is and have spilled into the road. This makes it very difficult for us to arrange our equipment and station our vehicles in an optimal position. Some of the ambulances we called in had a hard time reaching us because of the crowd and the street vendors. 

While we did get good support from the Police and some of the youth in the area, when civilians rush into help it creates some issues. We appreciate the help, it is a very Sri Lankan thing to do, but we ask that anyone who tries to help, follow our instructions. I would like to remind the public that in an emergency situation, it is not documenting or photographing which is vital, it is letting us, the emergency responders, do what we are trained to do and prevent the situation from spiralling out of control. 

Such activity distracts and disturbs us from fire-fighting, it also forces us to use some of the limited manpower we bring to the scene to deal with them. We request the public to put some distance between them and the hazard, in this case what is on fire. They need to also understand that we don’t know what is stored in the places where we respond to fires, if there were chemicals involved it could create hazardous fumes which is harmful to the public. So, please do keep your distance.  

Are high-density built and populated areas such as we find in Pettah, a fire hazard for the city of Colombo? 

Yes, such areas have a higher fire risk than normal. Colombo City is not a “planned city”. If it was, the streets would all be standardised and fire risk would have been taken into consideration. In such planned cities there are provisions made during construction for the fire brigade vehicles to respond effectively to every part of the city. If that was the case, the response time would also have been higher. Also, there would fire gaps incorporated into the building plans. 

However, in Pettah, especially in the area near the cross roads, there is no such planning. Buildings have been built or modernised without adhering to the building code. I think the Pettah area was originally built as part of the Colombo Port structure in the British colonial times. However, over time there have been many changes and the area has become a heavily-constructed and built locality with many vendors and goods stored, thus increasing fire risk. Many of the buildings in Pettah don’t follow fire regulations. Therefore, when we respond to fires in such areas, it poses many dangers. 

There are also, unauthorised, unregulated modifications and renovations done to the buildings in the area. The lack of fire exists and signage is a serious issue. It is because there were no fire escape routes, that twenty two of the staff got trapped in that building during the blaze. 

Why is fire awareness important for commercial properties or businesses? 

While it is important to abide by the fire regulations and building code in whichever area you live or work in, there is also a need to have “fire awareness”. Every enterprise, shop, and place of business should have some fire awareness. The recent fire at Pettah we suspect was caused by a lamp-flame which was used for a religious purpose. The police have informed us that the blaze had been triggered when a container with oil was opened in the vicinity of a flame. Further inquiries will determine what the root cause was. The government analysts’ department will do a thorough investigation into the matter. 

Businesses and industries should train their staff in fire awareness. It should be something done regularly and seriously. The fire brigade can provide advice if any business requires so. Please contact us if you need some assistance.    

Is the non-compliance of the building code and fire regulations a major concern in built-up areas such as Pettah? 

The fire checklist, and fire regulations not being followed is a major concern. There is a new building code which is being drafted, which may improve the situation for new buildings built after it comes into effect. But what will happen to older buildings remains a concern. 

Every new development will receive the instructions on fire regulations compliance.  

While the older structures and buildings have weak compliance, we diligently push for new buildings to adhere to building standards. It is a public-safety requirement, we do not issue a final certificate without compliance. 

Within the Colombo area of responsibility, is your department well-resourced? 

I can say happily that the Colombo Fire Brigade has a rich history of over 130 years. Today, we are the largest single firefighting entity in Sri Lanka. We have an approved carder of 501 personnel. We have 64 different vehicles for firefighting, rescue, ambulance, and fire-safety work. Recently (2021) we were provided a number of high-quality, high-tech fire engines, tenders, and ladders. It was such equipment that were used in Pettah recently. 

When a new member joins as a fire-fighter, they have to undergo a one year training period. We also send some of our staff for specialised foreign training to Japan, Singapore, and to Europe. We also have the only firefighting academy in the country. So, I can say with no reservations that we are able and ready. All we ask is that the public do their bit as well. Make sure there is adequate fire awareness, preparedness and planning in your place of work or home. And help up by not becoming part of the problem when we respond to help you.   

PHOTOS Asoka Liyanage

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