Over the last decade, energetic discussions about fire safety followed every time we had a devastating fire.
Those discussions and attention to the topic seem akin to fire. It begins on the back of devastating fire accidents but soon disappears as the fire gets extinguished.
The major turning point of the fire safety issue came after the RMG factory Tazreen Fashion incident in 2012 which killed more than 112 people. However, except for the RMG sector, the overall fire safety system in the country remains a far cry from adequate.
Whenever any large-scale fire incident occurs, no single authority takes the responsibility for any incidents, which, inevitably, leads to endless blame games and finger-pointing.
A shipping ministry probe body, following primary investigation, has said on Sunday that the engine of MV Abhijan-10 – the launch that recently caught fire and killed at least 41 people and injured many more – was faulty.
A case has been filed with Barguna Chief Judicial Magistrate Court against the owner of MV Abhijan-10 Hamjalal Sheikh and 24 others in connection with the deadly fire incident in the launch that left at least 40 people dead and many more injured.
The government officials are never held accountable for any incident. They all blame the factory owners, or building owners and so on. Lest we forget, the Hashem Foods factory fire in Rupganj in July this year killed 52 people.
In regards to the case of the latest fire accident, with 'investigation' underway at full throttle in the Jhalakathi launch fire for four days since the incident (as of this writing), we are yet to know who gave the certificate and/or permission for running the launch with its faulty engine.
"If you do not hold government officials accountable for any incident, our fire safety will not improve," said Brigadier General (retd.) Ali Ahmed Khan, a former director-general of Fire Service and Civil Defense who headed the agency for seven years beginning from 2012 when the Tazreen Fashion fire incident occurred.
One of the four owners of the MV Abhijan-10 launch has been arrested from Dhaka's Keraniganj in connection with the deadly fire incident on Friday.
However, only time will tell what will become of this arrest. Past records of similar cases and arrests do not inspire hope. And this has been going on for years.
In a recent survey published in 2020 by the Bangladesh Fire Service and Civil Defense, the regulatory authority surveyed 5,207 establishments under six categories: shopping malls and markets, educational institutions, banks, hospitals and clinics, hotels and media outlets across the country.
The survey found that 42 per cent of all 1,595 shopping malls and markets are at high risk of fire incidents. 56 per cent of all 595 shopping malls and markets are at risk of fire incidents. And only 1.7 per cent of all the shopping malls and markets are at a satisfactory level.
The survey result reflects the situation of the fire safety issues in the country.
Former director general of Bangladesh Fire Service and Civil Defense Brig Gen (retd.) Ali Ahmed Khan said this 'weak' authority should enhance the inspection of the buildings and establishments regularly. But it does not happen.
The on-site inspection of the rules and regulations of the fire safety measures is very weak.
"On many occasions, the inspection happens on papers only, where the inspector never [even] visits," Khan said, "In other words, the agency that has been putting more emphasis on the reactive measures than on preventive measures."
The authority will have to inspect first that a building owner or user has sufficiently equipped the building to fight the fire - with fire hydrants, alarms and other fire safety equipment. The authority will also have to give building owners and users training and make sure building residents do fire drills regularly.
On a positive note, the number of fire incidents has come down to a great extent in the RMG sector which took steps to overhaul its fire safety system.
It is evident that the RMG sector has made vital changes and done so to improve fire safety systems under the pressure of the buyers. "The government does not put pressure that way," said former DG Ali Ahmed Khan.
The private entities - be it residential or commercial or industrial - do not want to comply with the rules and regulations because they do not feel the pressure from that government that way.
While the overall fire safety system in the country remains inadequate, a new rule of the Bangladesh National Building Code 2020 may make the state of fire safety worse.
The definition of a high-rise building has been changed in Bangladesh National Building Code 2020. Now more than a 10-storey building is regarded as a high-rise building, which previously was a building taller than 6-storeys.
As a result, 10-storey buildings will not have to comply with many safety issues like emergency exit routes, fire fighting pump houses as well as alternative stairs.
"That means we have made the fire safety more vulnerable instead of improving the fire safety issues," said Adil Muhammad, general secretary of Bangladesh Institute of Planners.
However, the incumbent director-general of the Fire Service and Civil Defense Brigadier General Sajjad Hossain said they have improved the situation and will continue with their efforts to make further improvements.
"Now all the new buildings are being constructed complying with the fire safety rules. It is definitely an improvement," said fire service DG, Hossain, "It is difficult to improve the buildings that have been built over the last 100 years overnight."
However, many promises still remain empty words. For example, it was said the government would set up hydrants in the city to swiftly extinguish fires when necessary - that has not happened yet.
The government has also taken up projects to relocate the chemical factories out of Dhaka city. The project is still ongoing.
"We are now giving more emphasis on the training of the volunteers to give them elementary knowledge to fight fires," said Hossain. "So that these people can handle small fires on their own."
The price of life is, indeed, very cheap in Bangladesh.