Thirteen fire fighters may not have lost their lives in the Ghakar Plaza collapse four years ago if adequate fire safety had been ensured. This was the crux of a seminar held on Thursday to commemorate the sacrifice of the 13 fire fighters that died in the incident.
Speakers said that enforcement of fire safety laws can prevent incidents such as the Ghakar Plaza tragedy, which claimed several lives and destroyed property worth billions of rupees.
The seminar was organised by Punjab Emergency Service Rescue 1122 Rawalpindi in collaboration with Fire Safety Association of Pakistan (FSAP) at the Rawal Town Municipal Administration headquarter.
FSAP President Ghulam Muhamamd Naz lamented the absence of a regulator to ensure fire safety measures in commercial and residential buildings. There is not authority to enforce the building by-laws ensuring fire precautionary measures, he said.
“It is unfortunate not to have [proper enforcement of the laws]. It is not the rescuers but the people themselves that can ensure prevention of fire incidents,” Naz said.
There was only one entry and exit point at the plaza, which caused problems for the fire fighters and led to multiple deaths after the building collapsed, said Rescue 1122 District Officer (DO) Dr Abdul Rehman.
The new building of the plaza also lacks adequate fire safety precautions, as recommended by the rescue squad and the Rawalpindi Cantonment Board (RCB), he added. The concerned municipal authorities, he said, has done nothing except issuing notices to the owner.
On December 20, 2008, 13 fire fighters lost their lives including six firemen of Rescue 1122 as the five-story Ghakhar Plaza --- housing retail shops of clothes and shoes --- collapsed following a fire caused by short circuiting in the building.
Following the incident, a memorandum of understanding was signed by the City District Government Rawalpindi, RCB and Rawalpindi Chamber of Commerce and Industry to ensure fire safety measures in the industrial and commercial buildings. However, the MOU has not been implemented so far, with over 150 commercial buildings without required fire safety steps.
Families of fallen rescuers demand compensation
Meanwhile, some heirs of the fallen fire fighters asked the government to pay a monthly stipend for the heirs of the deceased.
The families of two deceased fire fighters said there should have been insurance and monthly pensions for the surviving parents or the widows of the deceased fire fighters.
Amina Bibi, mother of Shafqat Ali, 23, who died in the fire, said the government has compensated the family well. “Due regard and respect has been extended to me,” she added. However, she said her late son left behind a three-year-old daughter and his widow, who should be compensated with some regular monthly pension. “We repeatedly approached Rescue 1122 Punjab to get the pension but in vain,” she said.
With tears in her eyes, the mother of another victim, Musa Zubair Lodhi, 28, said, “All fire fighters should have pension and insurance. One-off compensation is fine but regular payment helps more,” she said.
DO Rehman said the fire fighters were on contract and they did not have insurance coverage. However the government gave Rs3 million to the families of each fire fighter and offered a job to an immediate family member.
Rehman said service rules were relaxed to accommodate the brothers of the deceased rescuers and provide them with regular income.
Published in The Express Tribune, December 21st, 2012.