Prime Minister Narendra Modi on Wednesday, 27th April, 2022 asked states to undertake safety audits, especially of hospitals, citing rising cases of fire incidents amid searing heat in many parts of the country. Many fire tragedies involving hospitals had happened last year claiming many innocent lives. It was a difficult time as many heart-rending tragedies occurred, the PM said.
In recent times, fires in medical facilities have become too frequent to ignore. Is there a pattern? Timely evacuation in these places is all the more difficult because the patients are ill and infirm and quick escape is not an easy option in the first place. The covid years saw a spike in such incidents but even as covid wanes, hospitals remain fire hazards for various reasons.
In a MOST recent incident the Health Minister, DGP (Director General of Police), Mayor and Health Secretary reached the spot when a fire broke out at the Rajiv Gandhi Government General Hospital (GGH) in Chennai on Wednesday, April 27. The fire accident was reported in the surgical ward located in the second tower block. Fortunately, no lives were lost in this one as emergency service were rushed to the spot and all the patients were evacuated on time.
A per a report dated May 2021, 24 fire incidents in hospitals since August 2020 had killed 93 people, mostly Covid patients. “As many as 93 people, most of them Covid-19 patients, died in 24 incidents of fire in hospitals in India since last August. Why are these fires taking place regularly, despite the hospitals having passed fire checks and audits?” asked a concerned blogger.
A high patient load and arrangements for the pandemic had obviously stressed the hospital system, making it vulnerable to fire. Eleven of the Twenty-four fires were major fires and 13 were minor ones. More than half these fires occurred in the period between March and April, when rising Covid-19 cases snowballed into a second wave. Of 59 deaths from hospital fires in the previous two months, 33 deaths were reported from Maharashtra in 6 fire incidents and 21 in Gujarat in three fire incidents.
The report said that fire experts blamed an “overstressed” hospital system for the frequent fire incidents as the facilities concerned were unable to bear the rising patient load. “Hospitals are increasing beds, equipment and staff to admit more Covid patients, but it is not possible to immediately expand the electrical wiring system. Medical equipment or wires carrying current beyond their capacity can overheat. That is what is happening in many hospitals. We don’t need just a fire audit, we also need an electrical audit,” said Rajendra Uchake, the then Chief Fire Officer in Nagpur.
In a study carried out covering 33 fire incidents in major hospitals with more than 100 beds between 2010 and 2019, it was found that the overwhelming cause of such fires was electrical and 78 percent of these were on account of short-circuit. The air conditioners of the hospitals were the most common source. In a fire in Vijay Vallabh Hospital in Virar outside Mumbai, which killed 15, and in Ayush Hospital, Surat, which killed 3, the fire began due to the AC. In both cases, the AC had already functioned for 24 hours. Uchake said instead of a cassette or window AC, air handling units (AHU) needed to be installed in ICUs to circulate air as they are better workhorses.
In 13 of the 24 cases, the fire began in an ICU. These hospital ICUs did not function up to 100% capacity before the pandemic and that put pressure on the entire system according to Santosh Warick, Director, Maharashtra Fire Services, who opined that ideally air conditioners needed to run for 15-16 hours and then needed a cooling period.