Karachi’s latest lethal shopping mall fire should be Pakistan’s wake-up call
The devastating fire that engulfed Karachi's R.J. Shopping Mall on the morning of November 25 stands as a stark reminder of the critical importance of fire safety regulations and the dire consequences of lax enforcement. The tragic loss of 11 lives and the injuries sustained by several others highlights the urgent need for a comprehensive approach to fire safety in Pakistan.
The R.J. Shopping Mall fire was not an isolated incident. Similar tragedies have occurred in recent years in Islamabad and Karachi, highlighting a pattern of negligence and disregard for fire safety regulations. Usually, it is the lack of basic fire safety measures, such as smoke detectors, fire alarm systems, and emergency exits, that allow the blaze to spread rapidly and entrap unsuspecting individuals. The absence of adequate fire safety measures is a direct violation of building codes and a blatant disregard for the safety of those who occupy these structures.
This is a time for introspection. Fire safety is a shared responsibility among various government institutions at the federal, provincial, and local levels. These institutions must play their mandated roles in formulating and implementing fire safety policies, conducting inspections, enforcing compliance measures, and responding to fire emergencies. Key institutions include the National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA), Pakistan Engineering Council (PEC), Provincial Disaster Management Authorities (PDMAs), Provincial Building Control Authorities (BCAAs), Municipal Corporations, Cantonment Boards, Civil Aviation Authority (CAA), and Rescue1122. Preparedness for disaster requires strong and empowered local government – currently missing in discourse and action.
Action on several fronts is required. Strict enforcement of fire safety regulations by municipal authorities will ensure that commercial building owners adhere to these regulations without exception. This includes imposing penalties for non-compliance and revoking business licenses.
Regular inspections of commercial buildings by qualified fire safety experts are crucial to identify and rectify potential hazards. These inspections should be conducted at least annually and should include a thorough assessment of fire escape routes, emergency exits, and the presence of fire detection and suppression systems – all necessary things that are not found even in Islamabad’s modern day plazas.
We should be cognizant that fire safety is not just the responsibility of authorities and building owners; it is a collective responsibility shared by everyone.
Dr. Vaqar Ahmed
Public awareness campaigns aimed at educating the public on fire prevention measures are essential. These campaigns should focus on highlighting the importance of fire safety practices, such as identifying potential hazards, developing evacuation plans and using fire extinguishers properly.
Equipping fire departments with necessary resources, including modern firefighting equipment, adequate personnel, and well-maintained vehicles is necessary. They should be facilitated to respond effectively to fire emergencies and related disasters. Authorities should implement programs to retrofit old buildings with fire detection and suppression systems, emergency exits, and fire escape routes.
Accountability for negligence is important. This accountability will have to be aimed at both public and private sector stakeholders. Holding those responsible for enforcing fire safety regulations is crucial. Those who fail to adequately inspect buildings or enforce regulations must face severe consequences, including criminal charges, to deter future lapses in safety measures.
We should also be cognizant that fire safety is not just the responsibility of authorities and building owners; it is a collective responsibility shared by everyone. Beyond government efforts, community-driven initiatives by NGOs are making significant strides in improving fire safety in developing countries. Through initiatives like training women as "fire safety champions" in India, building community water kiosks in Kenya, promoting fire-resistant materials in the Philippines, and distributing improved cookstoves in Tanzania, these non-governmental efforts are empowering communities, fostering a culture of preparedness, and creating safer environments.
It is particularly important to ensure that women are adequately prepared for fire emergencies, as they may face unique challenges due to gender-based roles and expectations. For instance, women may be more likely to be responsible for childcare and eldercare, which can make it difficult to evacuate during a fire. Additionally, women may be less likely to receive fire safety training or have access to personal protective equipment. One hopes that the fire tragedy in R.J. Shopping Mall and related recent incidents in various factories and commercial centers across the country, should serve as a catalyst for change.
– Dr. Vaqar Ahmed is an economist, former civil servant, and recently led disaster preparedness efforts in flood prone areas of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province in Pakistan.