Tinderbox SSKM plays with fire

An L-shaped corridor is crammed with beds on either side, barely leaving any space for a person to squeeze past. Patients occupy the beds and their relatives the floor below, sharing space with discarded furniture. An exit through which patients and others can escape into a wide corridor in an emergency is blocked by a bed.

Welcome to SSKM Hospital.

The state's apex referral hospital was back to flouting fire-safety norms 15 hours after the blaze in the paediatric wing in the Alex Ward on Saturday night.

Officials said the fire had been sparked by an ill-maintained air-conditioner in a room used by doctors. At least 100 children admitted to the ward were moved out by their relatives and hospital staff.

But by 3am, after five tenders had put out the fire, the authorities shifted the patients and their relatives back to the ward without allegedly carrying out a mandatory check of the wiring.

But that hardly surprised a senior fire department official familiar with the state of affairs at SSKM. "The authorities have never adhered to the basic fire-safety norms," the official said, listing what the hospital lacks as far as fire preparedness is concerned.

nNo smoke detector

nNo water reservoir or any other proper source of water that can be used for fire-fighting

nNo trained personnel who can start evacuation before fire-fighters arrive

nNot a single building has a detailed lay-out of the premises sketched and pasted at the entrance.

During a visit to the hospital on Sunday, Metro saw loose electrical wires hanging on dimly-lit stairs leading to the paediatric ward that was teeming with patients, relatives, doctors and other medical staff. The space in front of the ante-chamber where the fire had started was crammed with beds on either side. The corridor leads to a hall full of patients.

"Such a big government hospital is being run in brazen disregard of safety norms, but our hands are tied. If it were a private hospital we would have cracked down on the management and forced it to implement all safety guidelines," said a fire department officer.

"I have spoken to the SSKM superintendent. He has assured me they would soon take up the safety issue," D.P. Tarania, the director-general of fire services, told Metro.

A committee constituted by the government after the December 9, 2011, blaze at AMRI Hospitals Dhakuria visited private healthcare facilities and ordered them to fall in line or shut down. SSKM has seen at least three fires since but has not bothered to put its house in order.

"One may argue that many lives were lost in the AMRI fire (the blaze claimed 91 lives), while none of the SSKM fires led to any fatalities. But there is no guarantee that a tragedy of AMRI proportions would not strike SSKM if the authorities do not change their attitude," said an official.

The list of fire-safety measures handed to SSKM just after the AMRI tragedy had mentioned that the corridors in all departments should be cleared immediately and all exits made easily accessible.

"But the directives have not been carried out. In case of a big fire, it would be difficult to evacuate people, especially children, women and the aged," said the official.

The fire department had also asked the hospital to connect all wards to a centralised water reservoir with the help of a network of pipelines and install smoke detectors in all blocks.

After a slew of visits by politicians on Saturday night, it was the turn of officials of the health and public works department to visit the hospital on Sunday.

"The fire-safety guidelines will be implemented soon," Satish Tewari, the principal secretary of the health department, who visited the affected ward on Sunday afternoon, said.