It’s a saddening disgrace that explosions, fires, and other similar incidents and tragedies have grown so prevalent in Bangladesh that people have come to accept them as a normal part of life.
The number of fires in Bangladesh has multiplied by at least four times over the past two decades, as the country’s urban areas have expanded without basic infrastructure such as fire stations.
Three latest explosions- one in Dhaka’s commercial building in the New Market area, another in Sitakunda in Chittagong has left at least altogether nine people dead and more than 40 people injured; while the other in Gulistan has killed at least 19 people and more than 100 were injured in an explosion at a six-storied building on Tuesday afternoon. These occurrences highlight once again how dangerous, uncontrolled, and deadly Bangladesh’s workplaces and commercial spaces continue to be.
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These accidents are the most recent in what appears to be an endless string of accidents on which we have made little progress overtime.
Stats reveal shocking casualty
According to data published by the Fire Service and Civil Defense, between January 1, 1999, and December 31, 2020, around 285,000 fires occurred in the country. These fires are also estimated to have resulted in a financial loss to the nation of approximately Tk 69 billion.
In addition, at least 2,308 individuals were died in fires across the country between 2004 and 2020, according to figures from the fire department. 2019 had the second-highest number of fire occurrences, with 24,074, while 2020 had the third-highest number, with 21,074. Not to mention, year 2022 had the highest number of cases recorded with 24,102 incidents.
Record fire incidents in 2022
According to data recently issued by the Bangladesh Fire Service and Civil Defense, at least 24,102 fire incidents occurred last year, resulting in the deaths of about 98 people, including 13 fire fighters. In addition, the fire accidents resulted in 407 injuries. Fire authorities claimed many injured who died at hospitals were not counted, thus the death toll may be higher.
Electric short circuits were the primary cause of fires (38.48%), while discarded burning cigarette butts were responsible for 16.08% of all fires. Burners were the third leading cause of fires, accounting for 13.98 percent of incidents. Over 17%, or 4,091 fire events, were undetermined.
Department of Fire Service and Civil Defense reveals that almost 38.87 percent of high-rise structures are at danger of fire hazards. Last year, fire officials evaluated 5,869 establishments and buildings, including government facilities, and determined that 617 were “extremely risky” and 1,606 were “risky” in terms of fire safety compliance.
The economic loss due to fire incidents were at least 324.59 crore BDT in 2022. Urban experts say that the rise in fires is due to unplanned urbanization, breaking building rules, a culture of not following the law, people not being careful, more people using gas cylinders and different electronic devices, and a lack of supervision by the authorities. Lack of urban fire safety measures puts residents in the capital and other big cities at danger of fires, they added.
Industrial scale disasters from explosions
Our nation has a history of industrial accidents that have caused the deaths of people in the past.
In 2010, at least 123 people were killed by a fire that broke out in the old town of the country’s capital, Dhaka. Over 117 garment industry workers died in Dhaka in 2012 after becoming trapped behind locked exits. At least 67 people died in a fire that broke through a 400-year-old area of apartments, stores, and warehouses in the oldest part of Dhaka in 2019. In 2021, a fire at a food and beverage factory outside of Dhaka led to the deaths of at least 52 individuals, many of whom were illegally trapped inside by a locked door.
Hundreds were injured and at least 49 were killed when a fire broke out at the BM Inland Container Depot in the southeastern port city of Chittagong in June 2022. This was one of 2022’s most distressing events. The negligence was on such level that fire service officials were not informed that chemicals were being stored at the depot. Hence, the number of fatalities increased. Purnachandra Mutsuddi, assistant director of the Chattagram fire station, stated, “The depot operator did not inform the firefighters about the chemicals — specifically hydrogen peroxide — stored on-site.” “If they did, the casualties would have been much less,” he added.
Unplanned urbanization affecting rescue operations
Dhaka’s highly populated areas are at “true risk of a disaster” due to unplanned urbanization. Brig Gen Main Uddin, director general of the Fire Service and Civil Defense, explains that emergency responders in Bangladesh are well-trained and equipped with modern equipment for rescue operations, but it is difficult to access Old Dhaka.
According to sources from the Fire Service and Civil Defense, 76% of Dhaka’s roads are narrow, making it difficult to conduct rescue operations in the event of an emergency. In addition, sixty percent of the buildings in Dhaka and Chottogram were created after alterations to the original design, leading to concerns that these unplanned structures may collapse because of explosions in gas, electrical, and water lines.
As we are discussing infrastructure challenges and narrow roads, the resumption of rescue operations at the Gulistan building, where an explosion yesterday killed 19 people, is proceeding slowly due to concerns about the building’s structural integrity.
The deputy commissioner of police for the Lalbagh division, Jafor Hossain, stated that rescue teams could not begin full-scale operations until they receive authorization from authorities. He said, “the beams and pillars at the basement of the building are damaged, and operating heavy machinery in the area, such as excavators, could create vibrations that might cause the building to collapse”.
Lack of prevention mechanism
In 2022, the fire department reported the highest number of fires in residential structures. Inspectors warned building owners of the risk and gave recommendations for improvement, according to the deputy head of the fire service department. Nevertheless, fire safety inspectors do not have the authority to seal any buildings; mobile courts do. Fire safety experts criticize an ineffective oversight structure and discuss serious fire safety infractions with no exemplary punishment. Yet, there is still a general lack of disregard for fire safety concerns.
After the Moghbazar explosion in 2021 and the Narayanganj mosque fire in 2020, fire threats from poorly maintained gas and electrical supply have been a public concern. Such incidents demonstrate that Bangladesh has a considerable amount of work to do in terms of enhancing its preventative strategy. The fire service controls fire and reduces their human and material costs, but fire hazard avoidance must be synchronized. Industrial sector fires, especially those in export-oriented companies, were the deadliest in 2022. The high industrial fatality rate implies that the fire safety measures adopted after the Tazreen Fashions fire and Rana Plaza collapse are not working.
The experts suggest taking quick action to ensure the safety compliance of city structures, such as garment factories, and increasing public awareness to dramatically minimize the number of fires.