On 23 December 1995, a massive fire killed at least 400 people at DAV Public School’s annual prize distribution function at Rajiv Marriage Palace in Dabwali, Haryana. It was reported that a synthetic tent, which had been set up inside the building, caught fire when an electric generation short-circuited. Many of the deaths were caused by the resultant stampede as 1,500 people tried to escape through the single exit door. People reacted in the wrong way as they did not know what to do when caught in a fire in a confined space, and neither was there guidance available through a safety supervisor or crowd manager. The factors that emerged during the subsequent investigation were: (1) there were improper temporary electric installations at the venue; (2) highly flammable substances (the synthetic tent) were used at the venue; (3) the fire spread quickly and blocked the main entrance; and (4) there were no crowd safety measures. The situation would have been different and perhaps many of the young students and their parents would have been saved if there had been someone to guide them on what to do once the fire started.

History repeated itself when 14 people—most of them women—lost their lives in the Kamala Mills compound tragedy in Mumbai on 29 December 2017. It was no surprise that the investigators pointed to similar factors: (1) synthetic material for decoration, cotton and nylon curtains, and plastic and tarpaulin sheets; (2) the fire spread quickly and blocked the main entrance; and (3) the absence of crowd management and safety guidance that resulted in people taking refuge in the toilet, which became a death trap for 13 customers and one staff member.

The people either did not know the dos and don’ts of such a situation or they were overwhelmed. The bouncers at the restaurant were naïve and perhaps had no basic training on what to do and what not to do in the case of various manmade and natural disasters, including if a fire broke out. The people who took refuge in the toilet could have been saved if there was someone to guide them in such situation.

These two incidents, more than two decades apart, show society’s resilience to fire hazards has not changed much. The government’s efforts by way of new policies and plans, and planning and conducting drills and exercises for different hazards during all these years failed in improving “fire hazard resilience at the grass roots” in society. The procedure for granting licences to places of public gathering, including restaurants, needs urgent review and revision in light of the National Disaster Management Act, 2005, and various guidelines. Public consultation should be part of licensing of places and events of mass gathering, and the scope should include places of worship, fairs, festivals, nightclubs, dancehalls, discotheques and bars with an occupant load of 100 people or more.

It is very common to see restaurant and hotel owners “prepare” their facilities for fire inspection day, but the norms are ignored once the inspection is over. A very common finding after fires at restaurants, temples and places of entertainment is that the emergency exits were blocked by various supplies.

Places of mass gathering need the presence of qualified and trained safety supervisors (the number may vary based on the size of the place or event and the size of the crowd expected) during all hours when the facility is open. The responsibilities of the safety supervisor should include: (1) maintain clear paths of egress; (2) ensure the facility does not exceed its occupant load limit; (3) initiate a fire alarm if necessary, directing the occupants to the exits; (4) ensure that the exit details are announced prior to the start of each programme or performance, notifying the occupants of the locations of the exits to be used in emergencies; and (5) complete the fire and building safety checklist daily prior to opening the facility to the public.

Needless to say, the presence of a trained safety supervisor at the Debwali school awards function in 1995 and at the 1Above restaurant in 2017 could have saved all those precious lives.

Planners and decision makers in the domain of disaster risk management and fire safety in India must act fast and review and identify factors that are thwarting the efforts made by the central and state governments to reach out to society and bridge the gaps as may be required.

New provisions need to be made in state as well as local policies, making it mandatory to have a safety supervisor at places, both public and private, where the number of people gathered exceeds a certain limit at a given point of time. The appropriate criteria and qualifications for crowd managers and the procedure for establishing their credentials should be determined at the Administrative Training Institute or the State Institute for Disaster Management. 

Dr R.K. Dave is a strategist and expert in disaster risk management. He tweets at @RISKZONE.