BANKING ON FIRE SAFETY
April 2013: Four women were killed in a fire accident at Axis Bank’s building in Coimbatore. The fire started on the third floor of the building at 10:15 am. Twelve fire engines were rushed to the spot and it took them two hours to douse the fire. The fire officials said the building has no fire emergency exit and so the women remained trapped while men scaled to the terrace for safety. They also say the building had not obtained the Fire and Rescue Department’s fire safety clearance. After the incident, fire safety experts are asking how the city’s civic authorities had permitted a bank frequented by public to function without fire emergency exits.
Mumbai, June 2013: Four employees of the IndusInd Bank branch in Andheri area of Mumbai died of asphyxiation when a fire broke out in the first floor of the seven-storey building in June. The fire that started in the depositary section also left nine employees injured. The building had an all glass façade with little ventilation that ensured that smoke killed just as effectively as fire would have.
After these two fire accidents fire departments have decided to prosecute the banks for its failure to adhere to fire-fighting norms in the buildings. In the IndusInd bank fire it took 8 fire tenders to douse the fire and the fire officials after their investigations blamed the non-functional fire fighting system and the glass facades in the building for the fire, and the subsequent deaths.
The fire incidents have shown that the banks are not serious about installing fire safety measures in buildings. According to the Maharashtra Fire Prevention and Life Safety Measures Act, every building, residential and commercial, should conduct a fire safety audit on its own every six months, and a compliance report should be submitted in January and July to the fire brigade, which will verify it. Banks also come under this purview.
Talking about the IndusInd fire officials blamed the glass facades and lack of ventilation for the spread of the fire and the deaths. Significantly the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation, the civic body in Mumbai has no guidelines on installing glass facades for a long time. The civic body decided to prepare guidelines on glass facades only after a fire broke out in a commercial building at the Bandra Kurla Complex last September. “We prepared the draft and submitted to the building proposal officials. They have given us some suggestions and we are going through it. The guidelines are likely to be out soon,” said a senior fire official.
Needless to say that the guidelines list in question is yet to be out.
Ironically, banks that have in past been known to be extra careful when it comes to security, thanks primarily to the whip that is being cracked by the Reserve Bank of India have been falling woefully short on fire safety. And that too when it is an established fact that any closed venue where the inflow of people is high needs to have a fully functional fire safety system to guard against fire accidents. The reasons for these are of course manifolds.
The primary being the fact that the heavy mushrooming of banks that are keen on sprouting branches all over the country to cater to growing demands have made them less careful of the property they are renting out to operate a bank from. In most cases banks are leasing into properties possibly meant for a task other than where a large number of people are going to come and go through the day.
Accidents of fire in banks are fortunately not very frequent in India but 8 people did die in the two fires mentioned in banks in a space of three months, which is good enough reason for the Reserve Bank of India to turn its attention on this aspect of safety just as it does in various facets of security. So far RBI has no specific and pointed guidelines on Fire safety as it has on security.
The problem is also compounded by the fact that a very large number of these banks have opened branches in residential colonies. The fire safety, as is well known, in Indian residential colonies is negligible so the banks are starting operations in a premise that is completely devoid of fire safety at its construction stage. Whatever precautions are taken is generally only in shape of old fire extinguishers placed in a few places inside the bank premise. Add to this the fact that with rapid computerization of the banks, the power load here is immense and certainly a lot more than on residences. This often leads to short circuits that at its lowest risk may rob the bank of power and cause problems in its public dealing. At worst it could lead to a major fire. More so because with congested roads of Delhi colonies, fire tenders invariably have an accessibility problem.
A case in point here is a recent incident where smoke could be seen bellowing out of the rear compound of a bank branch on a Sunday at a West Delhi colony. With no access to the interiors of the bank, the fire brigade had no option but to spray the compound with water from over a ten foot high wall that served as its perimeter. Since barbed wire on the wall caused problems for the firemen, there was no certainty on whether the fire had been doused. Ultimately it took the skills of a light weight local resident who scaled the wall and managed to peer inside to say that fire that was caused by a heap of waste paper that for some unknown reason had caught fire had been doused and fortunately there was no real danger to the bank itself. But not all fire incidents have a ‘thank God’ ending.
As with all other areas of health and safety in the workplace, a thorough risk assessment of potential fire hazards should be carried out prior to devising and implementing a fire safety strategy for a bank. The important things needed to decide is whether a hazard is significant and whether it has been covered by taking satisfactory precautions so that the risk is acceptably low.
Risk assessment for Fire Safety in Banks
For fire there are 5 steps to take:
1. Identify potential fire hazards in the workplace.
- Sources of ignition
- Sources of fuel
- Work processes
2. Decide who might be in danger (e.g. employees, visitors) in the event of a fire or while trying to escape from it and note their location.
3. Evaluate the risks arising from the hazards and decide whether your existing fire precautions are adequate or whether more should be done to eliminate the hazard and control the risks.
- Control of ignition sources/sources of fuel
- Fire detection/warning
- Means of escape
- Means of fighting fire
- Maintenance and testing of fire precautions
- Fire safety training of employees
- Carry out any improvements needed
4. Record your findings and details of the action you took as a result and discuss these with the bank employees. Prepare an emergency plan and inform, instruct and train employees in fire precautions.
5. Keep the assessment under review and revise it when necessary.
- Revise if the situation changes
- Evacuation of Work Premises in the Event of Fire
If there is a fire, the main priority is to ensure that everybody can reach a safe place quickly. Putting the fire out is absolutely secondary to this because the greatest danger from fire in the workplace is the spread of the fire and the heat and smoke caused by it. If the bank does not have adequate means of detecting and giving warning or means of escape, a fire can trap people or they may be overcome by the heat and the smoke before they can evacuate.
It is essential to give particular attention to any areas, particularly unattended ones where there could be a delay in detecting the outbreak of fire and any areas where the warnings may go unnoticed by people who may not be able to react quickly.
For a fire to occur there has to be three elements – ignition, fuel and oxygen.
It is possible to take precautions and preventative steps to reduce the likelihood of fire as follows:
- Reducing Sources of Ignition
- Removing unnecessary sources of heat from the workplace or replacing them with safer alternatives
- Replacing naked flame and radiant heaters with fixed convector heaters or a central heating system
- Ensuring that all electrical fuses and circuit breakers are of the correct rating and suitable for the purpose
- Ensuring that sources of heat do not arise from faulty or overloaded electrical or mechanical equipment
- Keeping ducts and flues clean
- Ensuring that all equipment that could provide a source of ignition is left in a safe condition, even when not in use
- Taking precautions to reduce the risk of arson
Minimising the potential fuel for a Fire
- Removing flammable materials and substances or reducing them to the minimum required for the operation of the business
- Replacing materials and substances with less flammable materials
- Ensuring flammable materials are handled, transported, stored and used properly
- Ensuring adequate separation distances between flammable materials
- Storing highly flammable materials in fire resistant stores and containers
- Reducing Sources of Oxygen
- Closing doors, windows and other openings not required for ventilation, particularly out of working hours
- Shutting down ventilation systems which are not essential to the running of the workplace
- Not storing oxidising materials near or with any heat source or flammable materials
Fire Detection and warning in the workplace
You need to have an effective means of detecting any outbreak of fire and for warning people quickly enough so that they can escape to a safe place before the fire can make any escape routes unusable.
- Is the length of time it will take to evacuate all people to a place of safety adequate?
- Are there enough exits and are they all in the right place?
- Are the exits suitable for all people, wheelchair users for example?
- Are all escape routes easily identifiable, accessible and adequately illuminated
- If the fire detection and warning system is electrically powered, does it need a back up supply?
- Have you trained your staff in using the means of escape?
- Do you have a meeting point once you have evacuated to account for all members of staff?
Means of fighting Fire
You need to have enough firefighting equipment, e.g. extinguishers, in place for the bank employees to use in fighting a fire in its earliest stages. The equipment must be suitable to the risks (the correct fire extinguisher for its purpose, for example) and employees should be trained in how to use it. There should also be no doubt as to when it is time to evacuate the building should the fire get out of control.
Maintenance and Testing
It is imperative to keep the fire safety measures and equipment in the workplace in effective working order and to carry out regular checks and to practice your evacuation procedures routinely.
Reducing Fire risks through Good Management
It is important to have a fire safety policy for the workplace which promotes good housekeeping and reduces the possibility of a fire occurring. All employees from day one should have an understanding of what is expected of them should a fire break out. Carelessness and neglect are two of the most common reasons cited for outbreaks of fire in the workplace and no employer or employee should ever be complacent enough to think “it won’t happen to us”
Apart from huge amounts of public money which is insured, banks have a situation where there are a large number of customers who frequent it every day. At times there may be a situation where the crowd of customers in a bank may ensure that the bank employees are too busy to detect visible signs of alarm Thus it is very necessary to have suitable fire alarm installed that are periodically checked and well maintained. At the first sign of an alarm it is essential that the customers are askled to evacuate at the earliest with bank employees following. If the fire is of a level that can be contained by facilities inside the bank the problem can be tackled early. However if there are signs of it being a fire that needs expert handling it is best to summon fire department and give them all necessary information to enable them to contain it. Information given to the firemen must be lucid and building details clear. If the firemen know the base of fire they can handle it better. Remember the money may be ensured but loss of human life in a fire is irreplaceable.
MAINTENANCE OF FIRE EQUIPMENT IS ESSENTIAL
It is a bit like insurance, it’s one of those things that you know you need but you hate spending money on. At the end of the day, there’s no visible return or bright, shiny gadget, just a slightly depleted bank account. However, without properly maintained equipment there’s a good chance that your fire protection system won’t work when you need it. What could have been a small, localized fire event will turn into a catastrophe if your don’t work or the fails to warn occupants. You could run into issues with your insurance provider if you haven’t followed municipal maintenance guidelines. Many businesses fail because of fire.
Here’s a cheat sheet to give you an idea of what to inspect for and how often it should be done.
Fire Alarm System Maintenance and Inspection
An is sufficient unless your building houses hazardous or unique operations. Here are some of the things to check for during an annual inspection:
- Alarm panel is working correctly
- Communications between the Fire Department or a third-party monitoring company is working
- The battery back-up is running at proper strength; batteries need to be replaced if necessary
- Each component is working properly
- You’re also required to perform a 30-second function test monthly. A property manager or operations employee can usually handle this.
During a fire alarm system inspection, check the communications between the fire alarm panel and the sprinkler system. However, a check of the sprinkler system is an inspection unto itself. Most systems require annual inspections, although hazardous or unique operations may require more frequent checks. Here are some of the items to check:
- Valve between municipal water main and sprinkler system is working
- Air Pressure in dry system is adequate
- Visual Inspection of sprinkler heads to ensure they are free of corrosion, debris, paint or other contaminants
- Pipes are supported properly
- Inspector’s test of one sprinkler head
- Drainage is functioning
- Room temperature is adequate to prevent pipe freezing
- Backflow protection devices are working
A is used in sprinkler systems that require more water than can be accessed through the municipal water supply, often highrises or very large buildings. A water flow test for the fire pump should be tested annually. However, as they are fairly complicated electric or diesel powered machines, the mechanics will need to be tested more often.
Standpipe System Maintenance
Both require testing every five years. Wet systems require a flow test and dry systems require an air pressure test.
Bi-Annual Fire Suppression System Inspection and Testing
- Fire suppression systems containing gas or chemicals as their extinguishing agent usually require testing every six months. Some of the items to test for include:
- Visual check of tanks and pipes to ensure no dents, cracks or corrosion
- Tank pressure is at correct level
- Ensure that nozzles are debris-free, un-corroded and in the correct position
- Testing of mechanical and electrical components
- Fire Extinguisher Annual Inspection
- Fire extinguishers require annual inspections to ensure they will discharge when needed. Following are some of the items to test:
- Ensure containers are not dented or damaged, and are properly supported
- Check that pressure is optimal
- In addition, every six years extinguishers should be pulled apart and checked internally.
Emergency Lighting & Exit Sign Maintenance
An annual function test to ensure that emergency lights and exit signs are functioning is critical. We test for a number of things including:
- Emergency lights to be illuminated via battery power for .5 to 2 hours
- Batteries checked for corrosion, damage and shelf-life
- Fixtures checked for corrosion and cracks
- Wiring to inverters checked to ensure they are functional