Modern-day schools, often extending into multiple storeys, leave a lot to be desired when it comes to charting out a fire-safety programme. Given their lack of enough open spaces, tightly-shut windows and air-conditioned classrooms, schools mushrooming amid concrete buildings do not allow for safe evacuation for their students in times of emergency, observed experts. While schools conduct mock fire drills at routine intervals, they give the crucial evacuation drills a miss, they added.
Confirming that mock fire drills at schools generally focus on fire-fighting and not evacuation, former chief fire officer Amarjit Singh Jhandwal said, “Modern schools, which lack space, need to train students in evacuation by making fire safety a part of the school curriculum.” In fact, Jhandwal proposed that one student from every class be trained as a fire marshal, who can lead the evacuation process on their respective floor. “While the space crunch in the city is forcing schools to grow vertically, with some towering well over four to five floors, staircase and lobbies are becoming narrower,” he added.
Citing an example, Santa Cruz-based Sonal Jain, a parent, said, “My son’s school has only one narrow staircase, and it is impossible for even two children to go down the staircase at a time with or without bags.” Further, school buses are often parked right outside the school, cramping access routes as well as the exits to and from the structure. Jhandwal, who recommends a separate parking lot to avoid a jam near the school in times of emergency, said, “Even in the Mantralaya fire, cars blocking the road made the rescue operation difficult.’’
Another way to counter the lack of open space, said principal Ophelia Barreto of Podar International School at Santa Cruz, is to train students to escape to open playgrounds. “During the mock drills, we teach them to escape to the open yards in the CBSE and ICSE buildings opposite our school building, as we lack a playground. We have taught them to quickly assemble in these yards during emergency,’’ said Barreto.
However, air-conditioned classrooms with their tightly-shut windows can prove disastrous, pointed out a Dadar-based parent, Raju Tirumallee. “As the windows are not being opened every day, they are likely to be jammed in case of emergency,’’ said Tirumallee.
Other safety norms being violated, often due to lack of space, include schools keeping LPG cylinders on the premises for preparing food, taking in extra students without updating the infrastructure and not conducting regular fire audits and checks, warned Jayant Jain, president of the Forum for Fairness in Education. “Checks and fines for not ensuring fire safety will keep schools accountable,’’ he added.
In south Mumbai areas like the crowded Masjid Bunder, Dongri and others, schools directly open onto the main road, thus posing the danger of children of running straight into traffic during evacuation in an emergency.
Schools of Children’s Academy conduct mock evacuation drill thrice a year, wherein a siren (fire alarm) goes off, and that’s the students cue for evacuating the building. Teachers are trained and assigned various duties during evacuation like checking if the lifts are functioning, no child is left behind in the classrooms and toilets.
Also, some students are trained in helping handicapped children safely out of the school during a fire. They are taught how to lift students or wheelchairs, crutches and other things and bring such children to safety.
Conduct safety audits
The student wing of Raj Thackeray-led Maharashtra Navnirman Sena has urged the state government to make the safety audit of schools and colleges mandatory. In a letter to CM Prithviraj Chavan and school education minister Rajendra Darda, the MNS student wing cited the example of the fire in the Kumbakonam school in TN. “Several students were killed in the mishap. The school had no plans or fire-fighting equipment to tackle the crisis,” the letter said.
Need of the hour
“We have a disaster management committee in place, as per ISO requirements. This committee, comprising teachers, looks after evacuation during emergencies and puts in place safety measures. Every floor has a floor chart highlighting exits. During mock drills, students are taught which exits to take. We have two extinguishers on every floor and in areas like laboratories, pantry, auditorium, audio visual room, which are never unattended,’’ said principal Abha Dharam Pal of Utpal Sanghvi High School at Juhu.