How does one even begin to fathom the magnitude of the tragedy that has hit the nation in the form of two massive fires? Over 20 workers died in a factory fire in Lahore while in Karachi the tragedy was perhaps beyond the grasp of one’s imagination. At the time of writing of this editorial, the death toll was in the lower hundreds and rising, in all likelihood making it the world’s worst factory fire. The fire broke out on the evening of September 11 and the factory in question is said to have employed over 1,000 people. It took more or less the whole of the following night to put the fire out and it is likely that the rain element played a role in this as well since Karachi experienced heavy rainfall during the nights of September 11 and 12.
The quotes of the men sent to fight the fire, mentioned in various reports including this newspaper, presented a hopeless situation. For starters, Pakistan has little or no concept of fire safety. Schools rarely have fire drills, unlike in most developed countries, and this means that most Pakistanis grow up with no real awareness of the havoc that fires can cause to them and their immediate surroundings. More specifically, there is no system in the country of fire hydrants, which are used in the West to supply water at high pressure to fire tenders. This is why, whenever there is a massive fire, one hears of fire tenders running out of water — because they have to carry their own supplies with them, which usually do not last all that long. There is also the issue of equipment such as adequate number of snorkels, which allow firefighters to approach high-rise buildings or get close to a structure if the road approaching it is narrow and cannot accommodate a fire tender.
This is the sad state as far as the fire fighting aspect to all of this is concerned. Then there is another side, of how structures that house offices, homes and in this particular case, a factory, are equipped to deal with fires. In the case of Pakistan, one has to say — and clear proof of it comes from these two tragedies — that structures have more or less no fire safety equipment. The factory in question had no fire exits and — according to officials at the scene — windows had grills so workers couldn’t escape. All of this is capped by an unsettling attitude or mindset, if you will, in general, where many among us feel that fire safety issues are things best left for those who live in developed countries and that if a fire were to happen in our midst, that would more or less be part of fate’s plan.
These two fires took place in factories but one has to ask how many offices of multinational companies, how many five-star hotels, and indeed, how many glitzy newspaper and television channel offices have fire safety measures like operational fire extinguishers, designated and clearly labelled fire exits. An independent survey would show that fire safety procedures are next to nil in most offices in Pakistan. The situation in the case of shopping plazas and even malls is even worse with most ticking fire hazards, especially with reference to their electricity metres and wiring.
As for the governments, they have not learnt any lessons — and history would suggest that even the dubious distinction now of having the world’s worst industrial fire may not be enough to wake it up from its deep slumber on the issues that concern citizens the most.
Owners of these factories and the municipal authorities whose job it is to monitor safety measures at the buildings have completely failed in their responsibilities. At the very least, their gross criminal negligence must be punished and existing building and fire codes should be implemented in earnest without delay. In addition, provincial governments, especially their respective labour departments, must ensure that labourers are granted protection and that measures are put in place to battle such disasters at all places of work.
Published in The Express Tribune, September 13th, 2012.