Instances of passengers having a close call as a public transport vehicle suddenly starts belching out smoke and ends up being engulfed in flames have been in plenty in India. It is indeed fortunate that cases where passengers have been helpless victims in such infernos are still far and few. Those instances where they have taken place have invariably been caused by an accident against another vehicle that lead to the fire or where arsonists have set a bus on fire. But the dangers remain. And primarily in public transport buses that are old and rickety. In Delhi for instance Delhi government has gone on an overdrive to replace the dilapidated DTC buses with new low floor buses that are now a common sight in the capital. While there have been instances of these low floor buses also catching fire, the mechanics of these buses have ensured that these cases have gone down substantially.
In several other states bus operators who have been asked to ensure that newer buses operate on the road, have been fighting tooth and nail against the order. Last year Pune faced a major crisis when Bus transporters, called for an indefinite strike demanding that the government order on permissible age of buses be 15 years. They wanted this age to be 25 years. The battle still continues between state government and bus operators. Private transporters who rent out their buses for public transport cause the biggest hazards since there is always a doubt whether these buses are road worthy or whether their mechanical failures can cause the bus to catch fire thus endangering the lives of those riding in these buses. But the newer lot of buses have certain checks which has cut down the fire risks.
In New Delhi, the famed Delhi Metro however has an exceptional record in fire safety. “The DMRC follows the National Fire Protection Association (USA) guidelines for fire prevention since India does not have any guidelines for an underground metro system,” said DMRC chief public relations officer Anuj Dayal. The NFPA is a non-profit organisation that works towards reducing fire related hazards through its prescribed norms under different heads like fire extinguishing systems, sprinkler systems and materials to be used. The rules, said Mr. Dayal, are “quite stringent” and are followed by DMRC.
A key aspect of fire safety on the Delhi Metro also involves a complete ban on carrying of inflammable material on the trains. There are clear and unambiguous instructions to the Central Industrial Security Force and Delhi Police personnel deployed at the stations and adherence to the rules thus far has ensured a fire incident free run for the Delhi Metro.
Nevertheless, to ensure that the staff remains prepared for any exigency, regular mock fire drills are also conducted by DMRC in coordination with the Fire Department, Delhi Police, Central Industrial Security Force (CISF), ambulance, other agencies and in-house staff. “We work with the Delhi Metro at the station level by providing the necessary conditions required to simulate a fire-like situation and an evacuation plan,” said a CISF official.
In addition to the mock drills, DMRC also uses fire resistant material and equipment at its stations, trains and platforms. “For example, we use heavy duty exhaust fans at stations that help release smoke in one direction while passengers can be evacuated through another direction; the platforms have heavy duty sprinklers, and fire resistant material is used in all out lifts and trains,” said Mr. Dayal.
He added that as far as possible, all equipment like wires are made of non- combustible material and the trains can withstand fire for 30 minutes. Stations for the mock drills are chosen at random and the drills encompass a wide range of scenarios which may be witnessed in the event of an actual fire. “On many occasions, the Delhi Disaster Management Authority also conducts its drills at the Metro stations,” said an official.
The DMRC, said an official, also has a Fire Safety Guide which lists the safety arrangements available at the Metro stations. These include a fire detection system, a fire alarm system, fire extinguishers at strategic locations to extinguish small fires, fire hose cabinet, hose reel, fire service inlet, emergency ventilation system at all underground stations and tunnels and the public address system to guide commuters in case of fire or emergency. In addition, the DMRC has a “Certificate in Safety for Metro Transport Maintenance” for its employees where they are trained in the use of protective equipment, administering first aid, safe work procedures, fire safety measures as well as health and safety, legislation and risk assessment and skill upgradation.
Similarly operators of large railway stations are faced with a wide variety of challenges. Large crowds of ¬continuously moving people, unchecked luggage, high noise levels and expansive indoor and outdoor space make conditions particularly testing. Only state-of-the art technology can meet the challenge of ensuriong safety in railway stations. When selecting a system, quality, reliability and inter¬operability are the key considerations. Total ¬solution providers help to create easy-to-operate solutions that are highly interconnected and meet these complex challenges. And, since no two train stations are the same, the system must be capable of being tailored to meet the specific needs of each location.
It is never possible to rule out the risk of fire. High fire loads like cabling networks and onsite technical equipment, as well as the inattentiveness of passengers or staff pose a constant risk of fire. Fortunately, most fires can be dealt with swiftly, without causing ¬serious damage or need for evacuation, provided they are detected early enough with the use of fire safety equipment including fire detectors. These devices need to be powerful and intelligent enough to cope with the special challenges, such as high ¬ceilings and expansive open areas that railway ¬stations present.
Furthermore, the system needs to be capable of localising in-coming alarms – the more accurately the better. In a large train station hall, the information that a smouldering fire has been detected somewhere in the building is not particularly useful to firefighters. Modern alarm panels with intelligent bus systems are a reliable way of identifying and localising individual alarms. To achieve this, optical, thermal and chemical ¬sensors, with varying levels of sensitivity are used in different areas of the building.
In railway stations, there are usually different areas with individual requirements for the fire alarm system. Here, modular and networkable systems offer the ideal solution. They not only facilitate the deployment of individually configured and scalable fire panels to different sections of the station, but also enable networking between multiple panels spread across the building. This allows the networked panels to be operated and managed as a single integrated system. They can also be used as part of an overall system that encompasses access control, intrusion detection and video surveillance.
Over the years, buses and other forms of mass rapid transport systems have become technical marvels in terms of comfort and safety, not least with fire protection having become an area that both manufacturers and operators have started to take more seriously.
Some years back Atac bus depot on Tor Pagnotta in Rome learnt it the hard way as the depot was enveloped in flames and 24 gas-fueled buses were destroyed. Only five months earlier, another Atac depot had burnt down, destroying 30 mini-buses. Similarly on the motorway near Garbsen in Germany, a coach carrying a group of pensioners and children caught fire. The fire spread extremely rapidly, killing 20 of the passengers, many of them still held in their seats by their seat belts. On 25th December 2011, fire at a depot in Bottrop in Germany, destroyed almost 70 buses with a value of about EUR 17 million.
The list of bus and coach fires that have resulted in major economic losses and, in the worst cases, in injuries or deaths, is long. The list of smaller bus fires with less dramatic consequences is even longer. Not surprisingly, not much is heard or seen internationally about such fires in the mass media, for understandable reasons: the operators do not want to scare the passengers.
The general reaction to bus and coach fires tends to vary, and is partly dependent on how the question is seen politically. When, for example, three buses from different manufacturers were totally destroyed by fire within one week in the summer of 2009 in Poland, it resulted in major political discussions which led to most of the large bus companies starting to install fire extinguishing systems in their vehicles: a decision which puts Poland in the lead in the struggle against the rising number of bus and coach fires. The seven large European bus manufacturers, Evo bus (Mercedes-Benz/Setra), Irisbus/Iveco, MAN Nutzfahrzeuge (MAN/Neoplan), Scania, Solaris Bus, VDL Bus & Coach and Volvo, who together cover about 85% of the market, have for example since January 2011 begun to fit all their vehicles with fire detection systems in the engine compartment.
This simple measure gives the driver a chance to discover the fire at an early stage, with time to stop the bus or coach and get the passengers off. The right choice of materials, fitting of seat belts, requirements for manual fire extinguishers and the installation of fully automatic fire fighting systems in engine compartments are examples of other measures that have been applied.
However, it becomes very much more complicated if the driver should then attempt to fight the fire using a manual fire extinguisher. Provided that the fire extinguisher works, and that the driver is capable of using it, it can be difficult to open the engine compartment, locate the fire and extinguish it correctly. For this reason, the existing fire detection system should be complemented by a fire fighting system that automatically extinguishes the fire. Nothing should be left to chance when proven technical designs are available.
This raises the question that bus and coach manufacturers, manufacturers of fire fighting systems, bus and coach owners and certification companies are discussing at present: What requirement should be specified for a fire fighting system, and how can we decide upon a suitable performance specification?
The rising demand is attracting interest from many manufacturers that offer a multitude of fire fighting systems based on a wide range of designs. For the end user, it is often price and approvals that decide the choice of fire fighting system, but with what approvals can the vehicle owners, and thus also the passengers, feel safe? What test methods lie behind the approval? How does the price affect the quality and performance of fire fighting systems? Can we install some type of fire fighting system that is normally used for other applications than vehicles, without having to modify it? That these questions are not just hypothetical is shown by incidents in which buses or coaches have been destroyed even when fire fighting systems have been installed, and also by cases where the vehicle owners have suffered high costs due to spurious operation of the systems.
Another facet of public transport is an arena where fortunately the most care has been taken is the air transport. Simply because both the concept of security and fire safety has been a major condition right from the designing stage of the system. Airports across the world normally have state of the art fire safety system because they are aware that a fire accident inside and airport or an aircraft means mass casualty, not to forget the fact that the accident is likely to be under a microscope for a long time.
A couple of years back Sardar Vallabhbhai International Airport, Ahmedabad received four new state-of-the-art fire-fighter and rescue vehicles from the Airports Authority of India. The total cost of these vehicles amounts to Rs16 crore, with each vehicle costing Rs 4 crore. Similar vehicles have been provided to the Mumbai and Delhi airports, while the remaining airports across the country got it in subsequent months. The vehicles have been made in Austria by a leading fire-fighter and rescue vehicle manufacturing company of the world, Rosenbauer, and supplied by its Indian partner, Bharatiya Vehicles and Engineering Ltd (BVEL). These fire fighters are also called automatic transmission vehicles and have a number of modern features. Each vehicle has a capacity to carry 10,000 litres of water and 1,300 litres of foam at a time. The unique feature of these vehicles is that it can be handled by just one driver. The vehicles are fully computerised and work like fighter planes during crises. Just as a fighter plane can fire thousands of bullets through triggers, these vehicles are also equipped with similar manoeuvring handles or triggers which can throw water in 270 degree area up to 85 metres away and at a speed of discharging 6000 litres of water in a minute. The triggers are attached with pipes, which are set on the roof of the vehicles.
Similarly the swanky new Indira Gandhi International Airport is currently equipped with over 30,000 smoke detectors across its expanse and the entire concept was finalized and cleared even before the cosmetic beauty of the airport was finalized. IGI Airport also has four fire stations in its complex along with a full Airport Rescue and Fire Fighting (ARFF) force. The fire fighting force comprises 189 members who were inducted after their training in Malaysia, Delhi and Hyderabad
ARFF plays extremely important role by helping in preventing fires and be prepared for those fire incidents that can’t be prevented inside the terminal, in hangars, and on the airfield. ARFF’s operational objective is to achieve a response time of two minutes and not exceed three minutes at any point for each operational runway with intent to increase the survival chances of the passengers and aircraft crew. IGI airport now has ten, state-of-the-art Panther 6×6 Aircraft Crash Fire Tenders (ACFT) manufactured by Rosenbauer International AG of Austria.
Fire safety plays a major role in public transport also because in variably there are a large number of people in an enclosed ‘area’ which is also mobile. This makes sudden escape tougher so it is essential to ensure not only is enough care taken against a fire accident but in the event it does take place, there are enough drills carried out to minimize injuries. Fire accidents have taken place for decades and even with fire safety technology cutting down these risks, they can never be done away with. The best way is to be ready for the worse and make suitable plans.