No fire permits, how Delhi hospitals are openly flouting norms

As per documents accessed by India Today, there are over 1,000 hospitals and nursing homes that have been registered under the Delhi Health Department, but only 196 hospitals have fire NOCs.
No fire permits, how Delhi hospitals are openly flouting norms
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The anguished cries of parents, who lost their newborn in the fire that erupted at a baby hospital in Delhi's Vivek Vihar, still resonate deeply.

A father, heartbroken after cremating his daughter, grieved profoundly as the Delhi Police and forensic team continued to sift through the charred remains of the Baby Care Centre.

His sole demand - Justice. The incident on May 25 at the Baby Care facility in Vivek Vihar has once again highlighted the critical importance of Fire No Objection Certificates (NOCs) and compliance with the National Building Code of fire safety that categorises hospitals and nursing homes as institutional buildings.

In Delhi, however, obtaining a fire NOC for hospitals and nursing homes often gets entangled in bureaucracy. What do the guidelines for nursing homes and hospitals in the national capital say about obtaining this crucial clearance?

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No fire permits, how Delhi hospitals are openly flouting norms

India Today's Special Investigation Team (SIT) examined at least three nursing homes within a 2-kilometre radius of the fire accident that claimed the lives of seven newborn babies.

The investigation reveals how innocent lives are being jeopardised under the guise of exemptions and lack of vigilance.

In February 2019, when tragedy struck a Karol Bagh hotel, claiming 17 lives, the fire safety norms in the capital were tightened, requiring all multi-storey buildings over 9 metres (two storeys) to obtain fire clearance, down from the previous limit of 15 metres (three storeys).

This change put small hospitals and nursing homes, especially those in residential areas, at risk of closure due to the new fire safety requirements. When Fire NOCs became mandatory for structures taller than 9 meters, the Delhi Medical Association approached the High Court seeking structural relaxation. Most nursing homes in Delhi operate on mixed land or residential plots and cannot meet the structural guidelines requiring a 6-metre wide access road for fire tenders, 2.4-metre wide corridors, and 2-metre wide staircases. The order that would clarify these norms for nursing homes to obtain Fire NOCs is still pending in the High Court.

As per documents accessed by India Today, there are over 1,000 hospitals/nursing homes that have been registered under the Delhi Health Department, however, only 196 hospitals have fire NOCs. When we visited the hospitals to understand how they are operating without fire NOCs, they say they don’t require the same under some or the other exemptions.

Singh Nursing Home, located barely a kilometre from the site of the Baby Care Centre fire, was found to be operating a multi-storey facility with an active basement, all without a Fire NOC.

When questioned about this oversight, Dr Swayam, the head of the nursing home, claimed that an NOC was unnecessary because the building did not exceed the 9-metre height limit. However, our investigation revealed that the operational part of the building included a basement, ground floor, and first floor, and a second floor that was designed for medical facilities but was presently shut.

Additionally, the fire extinguishers on the premises had been outdated for more than 20 years (from 2003). Even if the NOC exemption excuse was taken on face value, our team found no water sprinklers or automated fire safety systems installed. All these are a violation of the National Building Code of India, 2016 (Fire and safety guidelines) and the guidelines of National Disaster Management Authority.

Furthermore, the registration certificate displayed on the notice board had a March 2023 expiry. When confronted with these violations, Dr Swayam had no plausible answers, except that he has a renewed licence dated May 15, 2024 onwards.

Not far from Singh Nursing Home, Lokpriya Nursing Home also claimed that they have the 9-metre fire NOC exemption. This facility, with seven beds and offering delivery services, was found lacking essential safety measures such as proper exits on the first floor, water sprinklers, and automated fire alarms, raising serious security concerns.

Beds were crammed into a converted balcony with no proper ventilation. The building had only six fire extinguishers. When questioned about these lapses, the nursing homeowner, Dr Swayam Saini, insisted that they did not require fire NOCs and were complying with the required fire safety guidelines.

India Today reached out to officials of the Delhi Fire Service, the Delhi Health Department, and the Delhi Medical Association to understand if any regulations hold nursing homes and hospitals accountable for evading fire safety requirements under Fire NOC exemptions. The responses indicated a lack of standard operating procedures to enforce accountability in such cases.

The National Building Code of India, 2016, specifies that the absence of emergency exits, fire extinguishers, and automated water sprinkler systems in healthcare facilities are violations. However, it is unclear if these guidelines are considered when the Delhi Health Department issues registration certificates to hospitals and nursing homes.

A senior official from the Delhi Fire Services noted a lack of defined norms by the State Government for private hospitals and nursing homes that don't require an NOC. He stated, "It’s expected of hospitals and nursing homes to self-regulate and ensure fire safety measures are followed".

When presented with our findings, the official acknowledged that the fire department might need to rely on third-party fire audits due to limited manpower. He mentioned that, based on the cases highlighted by India Today, the need for the state government’s authorisation of third-party fire auditors to perform fire safety audits must be considered to prevent dubious fire audits. As of the official, presently, the Delhi Government has not partnered with third-party fire auditors.

One of the other hospitals that we visited was Gupta Multi Speciality hospital which didn’t fall under the parameter of the fire NOC exemption. However, out of the three hospitals we visited, this was the only one equipped with an automated fire safety system, updated fire extinguishers, and a water hose.

Even then, the hospital still did not meet the existing fire safety norms due to structural requirements. Despite lacking an NOC from the fire services, the hospital had an updated registration with Delhi Health Services.

Speaking to India Today, the owner of the hospital, Dr AK Gupta explained why he didn’t require the NOC despite having applied for the same two years back. He says, "We have a relaxation, which is why we have got the licence without NOC. The matter is in the court since the DMA has requested structural relaxations. My hospital has all the fire safety equipments, but I can’t make the structural changes that are being asked for."

He also suggested hardly any hospital in Delhi applies for fire NOC because DFS has limitations, the guidelines that they follow are applicable across the country. However, Delhi has a land allotment issue.

As per Dr AK Gupta said, "In Delhi, plots for nursing homes were given in residential areas as well, due to which there are structural norms that can't be met." This is one of the major concerns for the Delhi Medical Association as it will lead to the shutting down of more than half of the nursing homes in Delhi.

The Delhi Medical Association (DMA) filed a petition in the Delhi High Court regarding the fire safety permits for nursing homes built on mixed land use residential plots. The petition argues that the norms applicable to residential developments should also apply to these nursing homes.

A draft of norms for such mixed-use hospitals was prepared by the Delhi Health Department, but they were never officially notified. This draft proposed relaxing certain structural requirements, while mandating essential safety measures like water sprinklers. However, the draft was discarded in 2022 after the Supreme Court mandated strict fire safety audits during the Covid-19 wave.

Following this, the Delhi Medical Association (DMA) filed a petition in court. As per a senior doctor in DMA, the court order is expected around July but shouldn’t be a deterrent to having fire safety SOPs in place.

On Monday, the Delhi government asked all private and government hospitals to conduct a fire audit by May 8. Health Minister Saurabh Bhardwaj sought compliance reports to be submitted to the Health Department by June 8, 2024. He also stated that it would now be mandatory for all nursing homes and hospitals to obtain a Fire NOC.

Source: India Today

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