Sunday, March 21, 2010

Risk and Danger never on Vacation

As the news of Carlton Towers fire spread, local channels aired heart-rending visuals of people jumping off the tower in most desperate attempt to save themselves from being charred; it was clearly an extreme measure of survival. It angered many and raised several questions, but accidents like Carlton Towers are not the first or the last, as risk and danger are never on vacation.

Whatever course law takes or enforcements happen on the Carlton Towers accident, for many who lost their loved ones it’s too little too late, and for rest of us it just wisdom at hindsight. As organizations and as individuals we do very little to assess and understand safety without realizing that fire drills, fire extinguishers, first aid kits etc are not enough to ensure safety, given that all can fail and failed at Carlton Towers.

Rescue comes ahead of safety indeed; it is an opportunity to be safe/survive when all safety measures fail. If safety measures are an assurance of being safe, rescue operations are about doing the right thing when assurance fails. Safety assessments as a process generally ignore rescue plans, and the assessment checklist mostly will just include fire extinguishers installed in the corridors, the red colored exit doors and approvals given by the authorities. Routine check-up and an alert drill ensures the safety measures are working but falls short of putting an alternate plan in place when things fail to work when it is really needed.

Being a mountaineer, key lesson I learnt was what best one can do when pounded under an avalanche or when slipped into a crevasse. Two most important distinctions are managing situations that are in our control and the other managing the one that are not in our control. As a mountaineer what is under my control is to use the best of the equipment and have the technical skills to use them, but what I need to be prepared for is to handle the one which is not in my control. Safety rules are the same where ever you are, if few basic principles of rescue are all it takes to minimize risk and casualties.

In a case like Carlton Towers, where it houses several small independent offices, ‘safety’ one really looks at is the neighbor next door who occupied the office earlier than you did. We live by the phrase “all izz well” if there are so many others in the same building. Not to sound rhetoric but the fact of the matter is that there are several such buildings across the city, we will see a lot of re-inspection, re-assessment that will happen across buildings and eventually will ignore all that and wait for the next Carlton Towers to happen.

The people occupying these building should at least start insisting on basic self-rescue facilities and points along with the safety measures.

- Self-lowering Anchor points / Bolted points, enabling ropes to be used to lower people easily

- Large Airbags, inflatable on release, ensuring people who may jump out to fall to safety

- Emergency Ladders, which can be easily installed in the balconies to let people climb down to safety

- Rail / String across 2 buildings, Where people can be easily moved from one building to other with very basic equipments

- Basic Rescue Kit – Ropes, Harness, Descends, Mittens, Karabiners, a must have, can be used to get people down faster

I do not know what could be justice for the people who died in Carlton Towers fire, because they are no more, we are not yet sure who is to blame and how long it would take to bring the real culprit to book. But Safety & Rescue are not just hygiene factor, they are to be assessed and re-assessed even when you don’t have to.

We have an instinct to survive, but should never be left just to instincts alone, there is a need to invest in securing the lives of people by looking beyond building approvals and safety protocols.

- Kavitha Reddy

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