Fire Services of Home Department has no database of high-rise buildings in Himachal:  CAG

 Himachal Pradesh’s Fire Services of Home Department have no database for high-rise buildings for purposes of preparedness for rescue operations in wake of disaster and combat fire.

The Comptroller and Auditor General have stated this in a performance audit report released by Chief Minister Sukhvinder Singh Sukhu in the State assembly recently. The Audit Report covers the audit period 2011-16 to ascertain the preparedness for disaster management in the State.

Dedicating an entire chapter to the performance audit (PA) of preparedness of Department  CAG pointed out that it had not conducted vulnerability analysis of fire-vulnerable buildings and also had not prepared a database of hazardous industries.  

The Department had no database of high-rise buildings in the State despite the Public Account Committees’ recommendation for the identification of such buildings.

CAG pointed out Non – obtaining of fire NOCs by schools and hospitals. A para highlights compliance of Supreme Court order was not followed as taking note of a fire incident in a school court had directed ( April 2009 ) every school to obtain mandatory fire NOC.

 The government of India took note of fire incidences in hospitals in various States and MHA issued advisories to the States directing regular inspections of hospitals and nursing homes to ensure compliance with National Building Code (NBC) fire safety norms.

 Fire Department informed (September 2021) that out of 2,806 Government Schools in the State, only 55 schools had obtained fire NOC during the period 2018-21. Further, all 996 major Government Hospitals in the State had not obtained fire NOC. 

However, as there were no penal provisions in the legal framework of the State, no action against defaulters had been taken and compliance with Supreme Court and Ministery of home affairs directions was not ensured. Thus, the lives of the general public working in or visiting these buildings remained always at risk.

During 2018-2021, 5,301 fire incidents occurred ( in 23 test-checked fire control centers) causing a loss of 117 human and 43 cattle lives along with an estimated loss of property valued at 479.28 crores. 

An audit conducted a joint physical inspection of 24 buildings with officials of the Fire Services Department ( August – September 2021 and February 2022 ). The buildings were selected from amongst those that had applied for NOC from the Fire Department.

 It was found that 17 of the 24 buildings had received NOC upon having demonstrated adherence to fire safety norms. In the remaining seven buildings, the department’s suggestions had not complied with even after 08 to 93 months of inspections.

 In the absence of mandatory clearance or NOC requirements and penal provisions, the department was unable to initiate any action against the building owners or occupants. The Fire Department stated that NOCs were being issued to those applicants who approached the department after the adoption of fire safety measures in their buildings. The fact remained that the department could not force non-compliant institutions to adopt fire safety measures in a timely manner due to the absence of enabling regulations. 

 The HP Fire Fighting Services Act, 1984, empowers the Department to enter or examine premises for compliance with fire safety norms but is weak as they do not contain provisions to enforce compliance and penal provisions for non-adherence to norms. 

The primary role of the department is to protect life and property from fire and other calamities. The responsibilities of the Department include issuing and compliance with fire safety clearances for buildings above 15 meters of height and industrial and commercial establishments dealing with or using explosive and highly inflammable substances, issue of fire safety guidelines, issue of fire reports, and organizing fire safety demonstrations, training, awareness programs towards disaster management preparedness in the State Compliance Audit Report for the year ended 31 March 2021.

” There has not been any significant improvement in the preparedness of the fire department in mitigating disasters, even after a lapse of six years from recommendations made after the audit exercise featured in the CAG’s Audit Report of the year 2016. 

The PA among others, assessed and highlighted the shortcomings of the fire department and recommended strengthening the fire department. 

Before releasing the report CAG  test checked 23 fire control centers that did not have adequate and reliable sources of water. 

 Against the approved fleet strength of 115 firefighting vehicles in the State, only 85 were available.  At the same time, Department surrendered a budget of 6.22 crore under ‘Motor Vehicle’ in 2018. 21. 

Against the sanctioned strength of 938 posts of operational staff, 257 (28 percent) posts were lying vacant, adversely impacting the capacity of fire control centers. The Department did not conduct any physical assessment test of firefighters during 2018-21 to ascertain their fitness for the job.  

 At the 23 test-checked fire control centers, against sanctioned strength of 353 operational staff, only 280 personnel were in position leaving 173 posts (21 percent) vacant as of March 2021. The department stated (October 2021) that proposal for filling vacant posts has been sent to HP Public Service Commission and HP Staff Selection Commission. 

The fact remained that non – recruitment of operational staff was adversely impacting the capacity of the fire control centers. 

 Physical Assessment Test for operational firefighting staff as per SFAC recommendation 45 years should be the upper age limit for firemen who are involved in firefighting and rescue operations, and the physical assessment test is to be held every six months to ensure that they are fit perform duties. 

Scrutiny of records of the Directorate of Fire Services revealed that out of 679 operational staff in the department, 437 (64%) were above the age of 45 years. The department does not conduct any physical fitness tests during 2018-21 as per recommendations Compliance Audit report for the year ended 31 March 2021

There was delayed response to fire incidents. Commenting on the readiness to avert disaster CAG stated that Six fire control centers “were wholly dependent upon natural or other sources of water and in two out of these six centers, the water sources were located 10 and 12 km away.

As many as 17 fire control centers were dependent upon Fire Hydrants (FHs) for their water requirements. However, a large proportion of the FHs in these 17 centers were not working as 

Even in the working FHs, delay in the availability of water was noted. In two out of three test-checked FHs in three “fire control centers”, during a joint physical inspection Audit observed that in the fire hydrant test checked (August 2021) in Solan installed at Mall Road), it took 57 minutes for the water to reach the FH. In the fire hydrant test-checked in Jogindernagar (installed at Amartax), it took 18 minutes for the water to reach the FH. The delay in water availability in fire hydrants was attributed to the absence of a dedicated water supply line.   

The State Government had approved (April 2017) norms of availability of fire fighting vehicles at each level of the fire control center (fire station/sub fire station/fire post). 

The Government had also fixed condemnation norms or parameter ( s ) for fire tender of vehicles, as recommended by the Standing Fire Advisory Council ( SFAC ), at 5,000 hours ( Stationary operation ) or 10 years. As per norms, the Department was to have a minimum of 115 firefighting vehicles in its fleet. 

It was observed in the audit that against this required fleet, only 85 vehicles were available, and even of the available vehicles, as many as 32 vehicles had outlived their maximum recommended life of 10 years.

 Scrutiny of records of 23 test-checked fire control centers showed that only 36 vehicles in 3 categories were available against the approved fleet of 47 firefighting vehicles. 

 The shortage in firefighting vehicles was concomitant with the surrender of the budget amounting to 6.22 crore received for motor vehicle purchases during 2018-21, indicating that the department had not adequately planned for the purchase of firefighting vehicles despite the shortage.  The Department stated ( March 2022 ) that the budget had to be surrendered due to a delay in receiving necessary approvals from the State Government for the fabrication of firefighting vehicles on. 

The shortfall in the availability of this critical minimum equipment meant that firefighters were exposed to danger which could adversely affect their capacity. 

Against the required 5,055 personal protection equipment (PPE) for firefighters, only 728 were available. The number of fire safety equipment including Helmet Water bottle, Eye & Ear protection, Safety Steel – toe boots, Safety whistle, Knee pads, and Work gloves are not sufficiently available. The nonavailability of this equipment was likely to adversely impact communication in the event of fire incidents, especially in remote areas. 

 Audit observed that the unique toll-free number ( 101 ) assigned to attend first information about fire incidents had been made available in fire Stations only. Except for landline telephones, no other method of communication was available in any of the fire posts in the State which could result in delays in the receipt of information and response time. 

 National Disaster Management guidelines (2012) provide that fire services must have connectivity equipment like telephone, telefax, computerized voice logger, and GIS. Ham radio, static and mobile wireless sets, and satellite-based communication Sanctioned Strength. The department stated that due to the COVID-19 lockdown, procurement of communication equipment could not be initiated. The reply is not acceptable as procurement could have been made before or after such lockdowns).

 NDM guidelines ( 2012 ) recommend a response time of 3 to 5 minutes in urban areas and 20 minutes in rural areas. Record of all fire incidents in the department is maintained in the Occurrence Book and Fire / Rescue Call Register, in which details of fire incidents viz., intimation of fire, movement of vehicles, estimated loss, etc. are recorded.  Fire Post Theog had not maintained a record of reaching time at the fire incident.

There was delayed response in 59 percent of cases in urban areas and 41 percent of cases in rural areas, Delayed response to fire incidents would adversely impact the effectiveness of firefighting efforts in preventing loss/damage to life and property. 

in reaching the fire incident places was mainly due to large distances from the centers, geographical conditions, bad roads, traffic jams, etc. This indicates that the department had not properly planned or rationalized the distribution and location of fire control centers keeping in view geographical conditions, etc.

The State Fire Services was established in the year 1972. Prior to this, fire services in the State functioned under the control of various Municipal Committees and Corporations. The State Govt. enacted the HP Fire Fighting Services Act, 1984 (amended in 2000) for the maintenance of effective fire-fighting service in the state. The department has not drafted any Rules for the enactment of the Fire Services Act.” CAG said in a Para. The department had not amended HPFFS Act as also not drafted rules for the enactment of the Fire Services Act despite Public Account Committee recommendations to the effect

 The provisions of the Act were weak as they did not contain provisions to enforce compliance and penal provisions to deter non-compliance. Planning was deficient as the department had not conducted any fire.

The department is headed by the Director, of Fire Services who is assisted by a Chief Fire Officer (CFO) and three Divisional Fire Officers (DFO). The department has 65 fire control centers as of March 2021 consisting of 25 Fire Stations and Sub – Fire Stations in urban areas and 40 Fire Posts in rural areas.

 The fire control centers are headed by a Station Fire Officer or Leading Fireman who functions under the overall supervision of either the DFO or Commandant Home Guard of the districts.

 The Department had a total budget of 159.03 crores for the years 2018-21 against which it incurred an expenditure of 140.83 crores. The savings were high during the year 2019-20. The department was not able to spend as much as 39 percent of its plan funds and 20 percent of its non-plan funds which is indicative of poor financial management. Further, savings were also significant under the non-plan head in 2020-21. 

The State has 12 districts and 108 tehsils. As per State Government norms of 2019, one fire station is to be opened in every district headquarters and one sub-fire station/fire post is to be opened in every tehsil. Thus, the State was to have at least 120 fire control centers (12 fire stations and 108 sub-fire stations/fire posts). However, as of March 2021, only 65 fire control centers (22 fire stations, 3 sub-fire stations, and 40 fire posts) had been established. Of these 65 fire control centers, 17 had been established during 2018-21. 

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