The price of fire

Urban environments are rapidly expanding but infrastructure services rescue are not keeping pace


Editorial May 06, 2015
On May 4, a garment factory in SITE, Karachi was destroyed by fire — a not uncommon occurrence in slowly-industrialising Pakistan. PHOTO: MOHAMMAD AZEEM/EXPRESS

The good news is that nobody died — though it was a close call for some workers — but the bad news was that 500 men and women lost their jobs. On May 4, a garment factory in SITE, Karachi was destroyed by fire — a not uncommon occurrence in slowly-industrialising Pakistan. The building had three floors and once the fire took hold, smoke engulfed it and caused panic among the workforce. Eight were briefly trapped, but were fortunately rescued, treated in hospital and allowed to go home.

Rarely high on the list of priorities for funding, fire departments everywhere in Pakistan are something of a Cinderella service. They are underfunded, poorly equipped and their failure to save both the building and the livelihoods of those who worked there is no surprise. A spokesman for the fire department said that they lacked the snorkel equipment in working condition that would allow them to fight a fire above the ground floor, and this alone should ring alarm bells in a city where residential and office blocks, to say nothing of industrial developments, are springing up everywhere. The 1122 fire and rescue service that has been developed in Punjab over the last decade needs to be replicated nationally. Whilst not perfect, the 1122 service does at least provide a baseline service across the province, is properly equipped and the personnel adequately trained. The service integrates both emergency medical services in the form of ambulances and paramedics, and fire response. It has won virtually universal praise. Urban environments are rapidly expanding but infrastructure services — and fire and rescue is an essential part of that — are not keeping pace. Given the poor quality of building standards and the frequent failure to incorporate firefighting technologies or emergency escape routes into new buildings, it is clear that an increasing number of people are at risk. Luck was on the side of those who escaped the fire at the factory in SITE, nobody died — but luck is no substitute for a properly trained and equipped fire brigade.

Published in The Express Tribune, May 7th, 2015.

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