The National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) was saddened to learn of the recent tragic fire that swept through Dhaka, Bangladesh claiming the lives of nearly 70 people and injuring scores more. While a specific cause for what started the fire has yet to be determined, we do know that the intensity and spread of the fire stems from the storage of chemicals in the midst of the mixed-use part of the old city combining residences, shops, and unfortunately, chemical storage warehouses. (We don’t know specifically what chemicals were involved, but news accounts have mentioned flammable gas, flammable or combustible liquids like solvents or similar volatile materials, and have alluded to perfumes, cosmetics, and simple combustibles.)
What is particularly troubling is that a similar incident occurred in Dhaka in 2010. While the event was followed by a government effort to prohibit chemical storage in the city center, the effort was not sustained because it lacked a commitment of all involved parties tasked with protecting people and property. Such collaboration is at the root of what NFPA calls the Fire & Life Safety Ecosystem, a concept that helps guide all affected stakeholders through the process for identifying fire, life safety, electrical, and related hazards, and creating solutions to manage such hazards. Right now, this safety system is broken. Ecosystem
Take the 2010 incident in Bangladesh. While the process began with government recognition of the hazard, it needed more than just a push from government to build the framework. By way of example, according to the Ecosystem concept, full adherence to the codes and the referenced standards within would provide the process for storing chemicals in designated areas away from the public; an informed and skilled workforce would better be able to identify and respond to dangerous actions (i.e. the movement of stored chemicals from a once designated separate place back to residential areas); and an informed public would be more vocal and diligent in encouraging change in the name of safety.
We are reminded that what we have seen with this incident in Bangladesh has happened elsewhere in the world: In the USA in 2013, an ammonium nitrate fertilizer plant explosion killed 15 people; in China in 2016, a fire and explosions devastated a warehouse area storing chemicals and killing 170 people. In each of these incidents, the governments’ ill informed decisions related to zoning and compliance with existing fire and life safety codes and standards contributed to the devastating outcomes.
So, what do the standards say about chemical storage and how they could have applied in Dhaka? NFPA standards, such as NFPA 1, NFPA 30, and NFPA 400, would approach these hazards by ensuring the following:
- Identifying the hazard classification and characteristics
- Identifying the types of containers used for storage
- Limiting the quantities of the more volatile materials
- Using construction to manage some of the storage (separate buildings or structures for certain materials to keep them segregated from incompatible materials) and enforcing separation distances from other structures, people and public areas.
As additional facts about this recent incident in Bangladesh come to light and we learn more, let it be a reminder that change can and should take root not just in Bangladesh but across the world. And while there is no single solution to fire and life safety, we believe that engaging in a full safety systems approach, as illustrated in the Fire & Life Safety Ecosystem concept, will get us closer to solving the world’s fire problem.
At NFPA, we continue our focus on the entire safety system, working with professionals around the globe in support of the development and use of the Ecosystem concept in their countries and according to local cultures. By working together, recommitting to, and promoting this full system of fire prevention, protection and education, we can help save lives and reduce loss.
For more information, go to www.nfpa.org/ecosystem