Are any of the many commercial buildings and plazas in Karachi safe? This is likely the question on the minds of many of the city’s residents after a six-storey shopping centre-cum-residential building near the Ayesha Manzil area of the city caught fire on December 6 (Wednesday), killing five people, less than two weeks after a fire tore through a shopping mall on the Rashid Minhas Road are of Karachi leading to at least 11 deaths.
The fire reportedly started at a mattress shop and spread to other shops before engulfing the entire building while the cause of the fire appears to have been a short circuit. The building was home to as many as 250 shops and 450 apartments and, though the fire engines were reportedly late in reaching the site, the residents were thankfully evacuated within two hours.
The Sindh Building Control Authority has sealed and is inspecting the structure of the building, but the upper-floors where the apartments are located are said to be safe.
This tragedy was not as bad as it could easily have been. That being said, the fact remains that most of the buildings in Karachi are not safe from such incidents. According to fire safety experts, over 90 per cent of the industrial and residential buildings and structures in the city lack fire-safety arrangements. They pin this down to the failure of the concerned authorities to implement building codes. The rest of the country does not fare much better, with an estimated 12000 to 15000 people dying in hundreds of fire incidents across the country every year.
As luck would have it, this latest inferno has taken place while a fire safety audit across several buildings in Karachi, in response to the Rashid Minhas Road blaze, is under way. Sadly, this audit was too late for at least five people, and may well be so for many more before the authorities ensure that the city’s buildings are truly safe. How can it be that only after an incident like this are instructions reportedly being issued to ensure the provision of fire extinguishers in all shops and buildings when no building should be allowed to remain open without such essential equipment? Why are fire safety audits being conducted after people have died when they should be held on a regular basis? And it is not just the non-enforcement of safety regulations that is a problem, so is the fact that many of our people have no idea what to do during an emergency like a fire. The ensuing panic and rush of people trying to escape a crowded place like a shopping centre is a safety hazard on its own. Along with better enforcement of fire safety protocols, we need to inculcate a culture of safety drills not just in buildings but schools as well. People must know how to act in an emergency from a young age. If such major changes do not take place, the safety of people in Karachi and elsewhere in Pakistan will continue to be compromised.
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