Fire Service and Civil Defence director general Brigadier General Md Sazzad Hussain said that no scientific investigation could be carried out into fire incidents in Bangladesh over the years.
Rather, he further said, the probe reports were prepared based on circumstantial evidence and witness accounts of the fire incidents while reports were supplied on demand.
‘As of now, we have neither the expertise for forensic investigations into fire incidents nor the facilities needed for the purpose,’ said the country’s chief fire fighting officer, adding, ‘The investigation we conduct is actually superficial.’
He said, ‘The reports prepared are not based on scientific evidence.’
He termed the absence of a fire forensic laboratory as a ‘grey area’ and the biggest weakness of the department.
In a recent interview with New Age at the FSCD headquarters, Brigadier General Sazzad also admitted that had the fire investigations been carried out scientifically, the actual reasons could have been identified.
However, he said, the main challenge to an investigation into any fire incident is that it destroys everything it engulfs and often it is very difficult to find any evidence at all.
‘That’s why we hardly comment on the source of origin on the spot, instead we prefer to comment after conducting an investigation,’ he said, adding that there has been a long-standing requisition for a fire forensic laboratory for the force.
He said that they were now working to set up a world-class training facility in Munshiganj with a fire forensic laboratory as part of the modernisation of the agency and to investigate fire incidents scientifically.
According to the fire service department, 21,073 fire incidents took place in 2020 while the figure was 24,074 in 2019.
The department’s manpower is expected to be 15,000 by the middle of 2022.
Currently, the department is in a recruitment process to enhance its existing manpower of 11,000 firefighters and staff.
The government wants to raise its manpower to 25,000 by 2030, Sazzad said.
The government is, he further said, also in the process of restructuring the department, with the United Nations Development Programme helping in the endeavour.
As he said, the weakest part of the department is its training facility.
The training centre it built long ago when the number of the members of the force was only 5,000.
‘It’s very difficult to train up our manpower with the existing facilities in Mirpur [in the capital],’ he added.
He said that the government had allocated 100 acres of land at Gazaria in Munshiganj to build a full-fledged training facility for both officers and rankers with international standard firefighting and rescue training.
The land acquisition process for the facility is under way while a technical team is scheduled to visit the site soon for carrying out a feasibility study of the project, he disclosed.
‘I have planned to equip the training facility in such a way that fire rescuers from Europe and America, too, would come to it for training,’ he said.
Sazzad said that as the project was now in its preparatory stage, they would look for foreign partnership to build the facility.
‘If we do not find any foreign assistance, we will build it with our own fund,’ he added.
During the interview, Sazzad detailed the process of modernisation of the force, being implemented for over a decade, under which latest fire engines and other equipment were procured and fire stations were built at all upazila headquarters.
The FSCD chief said that an initiative had started for major development of the department since 2009 when the Awami League assumed power, with major activities undertaken and manpower recruited under the initiative.
Apart from the infrastructural development, he said, the department is now focusing on building physical fitness and professional capacity of the firefighters.
The force has also procured a lot of fire engines and equipment under government-to-government procurement deals to fight fire in industrial areas and at growing numbers of high-rises, he mentioned.
‘Look, he said, any fire becomes devastating in the first 10 minutes,’ adding, ‘Our standard response time to a fire is, therefore, about 10 minutes.’
If a fire can’t be controlled in the first 10 minutes, it might get devastating, he added.
Both fire safety measures and the building code should be complied with in order to keep casualties in a fire incident low, he said.
According to the FSCD chief, one of the major challenges during a firefighting operation is the scarcity of space for setting up fire engines.
Besides, he said, firefighters face shortage of water supply in Dhaka and other major cities.
In the case of fire at the Hashem Food factory in Narayanganj, which killed 54 workers in July, firefighters had to wait several hours just for placing their turntable ladders and then there was a shortage of water supply, he noted.
Also, the crowd hampered the firefighting job, he added.
The FSCD has 25 turntable ladders.
He said that the disaster management and relief ministry was procuring 12 more turntable ladders at a cost of Tk 150 crore.
By June, the fire service would have 35 turntable ladders so that the divisional headquarters would also be equipped with an advanced firefighting system in the coming years, he further said.
The old part of Dhaka city badly needs more fire hydrants, he mentioned, adding that water reservoirs should be available for multi-storey buildings.
During firefighting operations, he noted, firefighters also face difficulty managing crowds.
In many cases, overenthusiastic people hamper firefighting efforts, he added.
Brigadier General Sazzad said that the department was currently focusing on awareness building with students in focus.
He said that they were also preparing publications, using which people would be aware of how to deal with any fire situation.
The government is also raising community volunteers to help fight fire, he said.
In the event of high-rise fire incidents, the fire official said, instead of using turntable ladders the force is giving emphasis on inbuilt firefighting equipment at such buildings.
About using helicopters, he said that choppers were basically used to douse wildfires but in the context of Bangladesh it was more important to equip buildings with the smart fire-protection system.
‘We will go for helicopters when the rest of our listed equipment is purchased. It’s not priority,’ he said.
Regarding the long-standing demand for the deployment of firefighters in the UN peacekeeping missions, he said that the government sent troops based on the requirement placed by the UN.