There was a fire in the Lucky Plaza building.
I was once at a Fire Drill at the Colombo Hilton, a good 15 years ago. The alarm went off, and the Fire Department arrived at the scene in around five minutes. Quite impressive timing, for us, the silly lankans. Everything went according to the plan and the only thing remaining to complete the drill was to rescue a trapped “victim” from one of the Executive Floors.
The Fire Brigade ladder starts reaching up, and up, and up... till it stretches to the max. The ladder couldn’t reach beyond the 6th floor, and the “victim” was another good 5 floors away.
Houston, We Have a Problem!
We had a hearty laugh and walked away, thanking our stars that it was only a drill.
The Colombo skyline has changed much ever since. The World Trade Centre dominates the Echelon Square, majestically rising above both the Hilton and the Bank of Ceylon. There is another cluster of high-rises around the former Oberoi. The horizon behind the Beira Lake is fast changing too, from the Hilton Residence to the many high-rises in the making. From the sea-side to Battaramulla, there are many residential and commercial towers dotted around the landscape.
We are not big on International Standards in Fire Safety and Prevention. Many high-rises in Colombo have their own construction snags still unresolved and buried under paperwork. My apartment building has no emergency stairway; the two stairways are inside the building and not accessible from outside in an emergency. It has a sprinkler system and hydrants in place, but I have never seen them being tested in the three years that I lived there. Most buildings do not have smoke detectors or sprinklers, even though the apartments are sold at prices on par with the West.
Not to mention our ignorance and habits. We love to park our vehicles, keep garbage bins and potted plants blocking “the empty” fire points. We hate brushed-metal and aluminum; we love teak and mahogany. Expensive wood decorate our humble residences, from the entrance to the bed-post – lacquered and well-varnished! We don’t throw old newspapers and magazines; we collect them. We store plastic bags and containers, even though there’s nothing to store in them. We keep gas cylinders in the kitchen, with another new-cylinder by the side as a back-up!
What if, I mean what if, there is a massive fire in one of those high-rises?
Our Colombo Municipal Council Fire Brigade has no equipment to reach the highest floor of the tallest building in the city. Leave aside the highest floor of the tallest building, I wonder if they could still reach beyond the 6th floor of the Colombo Hilton.
Given the large number of high-rises mushrooming in and around Colombo, isn’t it time we had a well equipped Fire Brigade that’s up-to-date and capable of addressing the need? Ideally, with an air-rescue wing, if they were to keep up with the man’s desire to reach the skies...
We all love the high-life, closer to the clouds. But I’m sure we would love to reach the heaven one day, but in good shape – unroasted.