How a firefighter spends his Diwali, and every other day
New Delhi: Sub-officer Parvesh Kumar got his first taste of fire-fighting in hardly any time at all. It was only his second day on duty with the Delhi Fire Services when the blaring siren woke him up at 4am. He rushed out of bed, left his second floor apartment at the Connaught Circus (CC) fire station, barefoot and in a t-shirt and shorts, grabbing his fireman’s dungarees and gum boots from the telephone room on his way to the fire engines. He was in the vehicle and ready for action within two minutes of the siren’s wail.
The vehicle, known as a water tender, carried 5,000 litres of water, rescue and house-breaking equipment, breathing apparatus or BA sets, and three firemen and two officers. The fire service is set up somewhat like an army unit—a handful of “jawans” or firemen, led by an officer, form a crew.
The red engine lurched out of the CC fire station and swept into the wide, deserted road that circumnavigates Connaught Place, racing towards Asaf Ali road in Chandni Chowk. Kumar, like the rest of the men in the vehicle, slipped into his mud-coloured fire-fighting overalls as it raced down empty streets.
At Asaf Ali road, a dilapidated, multi-story office building was on fire. Flames licked the first floor. The CC vehicle was not the first on the scene—they were only called in after the first couple of vehicles from Chandni Chowk fire station declared the fire a “Make 4”, the second stage in the graded system of fire severity used by the Delhi Fire Service. This is how it works: for any fire, and other assorted emergencies—animal rescue, gas leaks, unattended bags at railway stations, etc.—to which the fire service responds, there is a “first call”. This brings into action a water tender (WT) with its crew from the nearest fire station. If the fire needs more attention, the same fire station can send in a second water tender, along with a vehicle known as a ‘bowser’, a bigger version of the water tender, holding 12,000l of water, and the same number of crew members. The next stage is a Make 4, which means four water tenders will be brought into play, and more than one fire station will get involved. Every pair of water tenders has a supporting bowser. In the same vein, there is a Make 6 and a Make 8, followed by Medium Fire, which can involve up to 25 vehicles and more than a hundred fire fighters. Finally comes Serious Fire.
Kumar, a slight, unassuming man whose father was also a Delhi firefighter, jumped out of the vehicle and relayed the hose out towards the front of the building. A team had already gone up the stairs to the first floor with a “branch”—the firefighter’s term for a hose with a nozzle. Kumar was told to put on his BA set and enter the building. This is was the moment he’d hoped for when he decided to join the fire service.
“People run away from a fire, but we run towards the fire,” Kumar said. “It takes some time to get over how strange that is. But once you do, then it becomes a habit.”
Kumar says that he has never heard an anecdote about a fire from his father. “We don’t talk about such things,” he says. But he remembers the wide-eyed and wordless excitement he felt as a child watching his father come back from work in his dungarees, soaking wet and smelling of smoke. When Kumar finished school, he immediately enrolled for the fire services training course. He then spent seven years as a fire safety officer with the Delhi Metro, checking stations and lines for fire hazards and ensuring all their firefighting equipment was in working condition.
“At some point, I began to crave actually battling a fire,” he says. Now he was going into a burning building, blinded by the smoke that enveloped the ground floor, his branch in one hand, feeling his way forward with the other. He went in and out of the building on the orders of the people fighting the seat of the fire on the first floor; carrying equipment up, bringing down empty BA sets and hauling up their replacements; he took an axe in to break a window.
In half an hour, the fire was under control. Two hours later, it was out. Kumar was now drenched, and smelt of smoke.
“That was good,” Kumar said, smiling. “Scary, but good.”
Back at CC station, station officer Rajesh Shukla thumped Kumar on the back and congratulated him on his first fire. But he also sounded a word of caution, something all experienced firefighters know as an absolute truth. “Every time you get a call,” the station officer said, “it may be a massive fire, or it may seem like a very minor one, just something burning in the corner of a house, you have no idea how risky and how bad it could get, and how it life-threatening it could be.”
Shukla is a short, wiry man with a bald pate. He is 36 years old and full of restless energy, with fiery eyes that he uses to good effect when he wants to make a point.
A higher calling
It is 48 hours to Diwali, a day firefighters are always a little squeamish about. At the CC station, the Supreme Court ban on selling firecrackers in Delhi was greeted with unequivocal enthusiasm. Every year, firemen anticipate Diwali with apprehension and unease. All leaves are cancelled and all stations kept at maximum manpower, vehicles and other equipment checked and rechecked.
At CC station, the BA sets have been lined up on a large table in Shukla’s office for inspection. Outside, the newly washed fire engines gleam.
This year, from 1 January to 28 November, Delhi Fire Services attended to 25,894 calls, of which 27 were major fires and 1,835 were animal rescue calls. The fire service works under an acute staff shortage—1,875 men, at an astonishing 42% of the sanctioned strength of 3,276.
The fire service is similar to other city government services like the Municipal Corporation of Delhi in that it is desperate for funds, chained down by bureaucracy (if they need even a single bolt to be replaced on a fire truck, the chief fire officer has to plead with a government clerk), and is poorly equipped. Though there have been significant improvements in the quality of vehicles, hoses and pumps in the last five or six years, station officers estimate that they have around 10% of the rescue equipment they need. Of the station officers Mint spoke to, with experience ranging from five to 10 years, each said that in the years they have been in service they have never been consulted about what they need in the field. The tools and technology used by the fire service are a decade old. Tenders are given to the cheapest bidder. As one station officer who did declined to be identified said, “We operate in life and death situations, so this is exactly the opposite of what we need. We need the best possible equipment, not the cheapest.”
The BA sets at the CC station have been in use since 1994, though the face masks are newer. There are three BA compressors at the station that have been out of action for months. The fire service has tried to replace them without success. Tenders were issued thrice, but each time they drew less than three bidders—according to the rules, a minimum of three bidders are needed for a tender.
It is also apparent to even a casual observer that a large number of firemen are neither well-trained or fit. As one station officer, who also did not want to be identified, said, “If you are not well-trained, not looked after, and not taken seriously, yet your work is high-risk and life-threatening, what do you think the work culture will be like?”
The most crushing aspect of this indifference towards firefighters is that they are not provided with medical support when in the field. No ambulance accompanies the fire trucks, even in cases of serious fires. Stories abound about how firemen with grave injuries, or on the verge of death after having inhaled smoke (during a fire, smoke kills, through asphyxiation, before the flames can), are left untreated in hospitals for hours. Most of the firemen Mint spoke to confirmed this was the case. Many have had this experience themselves. Some have watched colleagues die.
Yet, the apathy does not affect everyone. The Delhi Fire Service has plenty of men who see their profession as a higher calling, and have a love for fighting fire that is deeply ingrained.
‘Old Delhi worries us’
The day before Diwali, the first call to CC station comes from Delhi Police a little after noon—an unattended bag has been found at the New Delhi Railway Station. This is an automatic procedure; whenever an unattended bag is reported, both the police and the fire service need to be at the location. Kumar is on duty on the “first call WT”. Unlike the fire call the day before, the truck gets stuck in a traffic jam the moment it leaves the station. It lurches through traffic, most cars on the road oblivious to the siren. To make space, Kumar, sitting next to the driver, slaps his palms hard against the side of the truck’s door and screams at cars in front to grab their attention. In rare instances, cars make space. Sometimes, other cars cut lanes and use the opportunity to grab the cleared road ahead of the truck. The ride is as hair-raising as it is frustrating. When the truck reaches the train station, policemen inform the firefighters that the situation is under control. The railway police’s sniffer dog “showed no interest” in the bag, and so the police opened it.
“It’s some old ladies bag,” a policeman says. “It had clothes and food. She probably just forgot it.”
An hour later, a vehicle from the CC station responded to a bird rescue call. The call was made by an auto driver from a slum next to Mirdard Road. The bird, a kite, was hanging upside down from a tree, one of its wing tips caught in a tangle of kite string. The firemen used a makeshift pole, and climbing on a roadside cart, patiently released the bird’s wing from the string. The bird flew away to muted applause from the auto drivers and shopkeepers.
“For bird calls, either we use homemade bamboo poles like this, or a Bronto Skylift, which is a Rs12 crore vehicle used for high-rise fires,” Shukla said with a laugh. “We’ve got the spectrum covered.”
Then comes a call that puts every Delhi firefighter on edge: a gas leak in old Delhi. Within the stipulated two minutes, the first truck rolls out. Like at most fire stations in Delhi, the crew at CC live in quarters inside the station, and are on 24-hour call for three days before getting a day off. Except for a few people—the telephone operator, the first call vehicle’s driver, an officer and a couple of firemen—the rest of the crew go about their daily lives, except they can’t leave the station and need to be inside their vehicle within two minutes of a siren going off. This leads to some hilarious banter: the fireman who rushed out of his quarters wearing his wife’s petticoat; how one came out wearing a t-shirt but forgot to wear shorts and realized his mistake only when it was pointed out to him. Yet, the speed of the response leads to dark comedy: Once the truck leaves the station, it is at the mercy of the terrible traffic, with no quarter given by other vehicles even if the truck has its siren on.
Which is what happens to this truck. Shukla hangs out of his window, desperately shouting to get cars to move out of the way. As he does this, he alerts fire control over the radio that a call has come from Old Delhi, that more units should be ready to respond.
“Old Delhi worries us the most,” Shukla says. “We have no approach roads, so our vehicles can’t enter most areas. It is densely populated. And the fire load is intense—there are wholesalers of cloth, plastic, paper, electrical goods, thermocol, paint, so there are accelerants everywhere. There are restaurants and food stalls. The overhead wires are in thick, sagging tangles, short circuits are common. Imagine a transformer in the area throwing up sparks. Who knows what the sparks can do? How many shops and houses can it set on fire? On top of that, the buildings are very old and not maintained well, which means they have very low resistance to fires and there is a scarcity of water sources.”
In these conditions, an LPG cylinder blast can be extremely dangerous. Three years ago, the same crew that’s in the vehicle now responded to a call about a fire in a utensil shop in Paharganj.
“We thought, what kind of combustibles can a utensil shop possibly have?” Shukla says. “We were relaxed. The most that could burn is the packing material used for the utensils right?”
As they tore open the shutters of the 10X10 feet shop, divided into a ground floor and a mezzanine, the first blast struck. The cylinder hit the shutter with the force of a missile, making a bulge in the iron. The firemen were taken aback. The adjacent shop was a bakery, and Shukla and his men had cleared the LPG cylinders and oil from the shop already. A few minutes after the blast, normal service resumed. The firemen tore enough of the shutter to insert a branch into the shop and start their water jet.
Then the second blast happened. And a third. A fourth, then a fifth. The firemen were flung off their feet. They heard nothing except the ringing in their ears. Dazed and staggering, they redoubled their efforts. When the ground floor fire was under control, Shukla sent two men up on the roof to break a hole there and get a branch into the mezzanine. As soon as the men reached the roof, the biggest blast of the day struck, shaking the building to its core. A drum with over 200 litres of diesel, stored in the mezzanine, had blown up.
That day, the crew were lucky to get off with minor injuries. Most LPG blasts claim bodies. A few months ago, a crew responded to a small fire at a shack-like restaurant in Vikaspuri. Two firemen, Hari Om and Hari Singh Meena, were tearing the shutter down when an LPG blast inside blew the shutter open. One fireman had a portion of his head taken off by the debris, the other had a hole blown into his chest. Both died instantly.
“Delhi is an unplanned city, and when we enter any building, we have no clue as to what terrible fire hazard we will find there,” Shukla says. “We assume there will be LPG cylinders everywhere.”
Shukla lives with his wife and two daughters, one seven years old, the other born only seven months back. His wife and he speak openly about the dangers of his work. Shukla worries about the condition in which his body might be found, that his wife may have to see him like that.
Back in Old Delhi, the firemen jump off their truck at the furthest point the vehicle can go. Asking for directions to “Ramchander ki Bageechi”, they break into a quick jog. When they reach the house, inside an alley so thin only two people can walk side by side, they find an old woman spreadeagled outside her door, looking shaken. A policeman had already reached the scene and deactivated the gas line. Shukla goes in to check the LPG connection and is satisfied the leak won’t happen again.
‘Uncle, cut my leg’
Shukla, who is from Ranchi, comes from a solid middle-class family. His mother taught in a government school and his father was in security. Shukla wanted to be a doctor, or in the army. When neither plan bore fruit, he reluctantly applied for the fire officer’s course.
Within a week of joining the Delhi Fire Services in 2005, Shukla fought a major fire in a building with motor parts shops. The source of the fire was in the basement, which had over 20 small shops, all shuttered. The conflagration spread to the upper floors of the two-story building. The fight lasted more than 12 hours. Shukla, who was tasked with breaking open the shutters in the basement, had gone through six BA sets (each set provides 45 minutes of oxygen) by the time he was done.
“I was so exhausted that I lay down on the pavement outside and had to be carried to the vehicle,” he says. “But I felt amazing. Till then, I was unsure about whether I would actually like being a firefighter. But that day, I knew I was made for it. I loved fighting fire.”
But Shukla says he was truly shaped by an incident while he was still in training. He was attached to a fire station in Ahmedabad for practical experience. Then, the 2001 Gujarat earthquake hit.
“The earthquake happened at 8.46am, and we were at the site of a collapsed building in Ahmedabad at 9am,” Shukla says. “I had never seen anything like that—the panic, the chaos—I had no clue about rescue or what to do in a situation like this.”
Nevertheless, when they were told by someone that they could hear cries from under the debris, Shukla and his fellow trainees started removing chunks of shattered rock and plaster with their hands.
“Soon, I could hear the muffled moans of a little girl,” he says. They kept digging and found her. As they removed debris from around her head, they spoke to her in a reassuring, casual way. After an hour, they had cleared most of the debris, but one of her legs was crushed under a massive slab. After another hour’s effort, Shukla told the girl they would not be able to free her leg.
“She was 8 or 10 years old. She looked me in the eye, and calmly, so calmly, with no hesitation or fear in her voice, she said, ‘Uncle, cut my leg’,” Shukla says. “I cannot explain to you what it felt like to hear her say that. I had to leave her for a few minutes to go away and howl.”
Shukla returned to the spot with a newfound strength—whatever happens, he had decided, he would save the girl, and not cut her leg in the process. By this time, some rescue equipment was trickling in, and Shukla got his hands on a small drill. Patiently, over an hour and a half, Shukla drilled a hole around the wall where the girl’s leg was stuck. Finally he was able to release her.
“I was so fortunate,” he says. “Every time I am in a rescue situation now, I remember her, and that’s what drives me, and that’s what makes me believe in my instincts and in my abilities.”
‘We’ll need to go in’
On Diwali day, calls start trickling in at 1 in the afternoon. Minor calls—unattended bag, garbage on fire, a fire in a plywood shop that is quickly put down. As the evening lengthened, the firemen spoke again about the positive effects of the firecracker ban, and how subdued this Diwali was.
At 10.40pm the lull inside CC station was shattered by the shriek of the siren. A fire in Geeta Colony, more than 10km from the CC station across the Yamuna, had been declared a Make 6. One WT and a bowser left the station.
Just under an hour before, at 9.50pm, when the first responders got to the two-story warehouse in Geeta Colony, the fire was already gathering strength. Located inside a twisting, narrow alley barely five feet across, the warehouse, like all the other houses in the alley, shared its walls with two-story buildings on both sides. The nearest a fire truck could reach was the mouth of the alley, roughly 300 metres away. The balcony of the house opposite the warehouse jutted out; you could easily step off the balcony and in through the first floor window of the warehouse.
Flames jumped out at the balcony from this window. Geeta Colony station officer Nagender Kumar’s first call was to evacuate both houses adjacent to the warehouse, and the house with the balcony opposite. Then the electricity supply to the alley was cut. Kumar carried a branch up to the balcony and began a full frontal attack. But he could only see the façade of the warehouse. The rest of the structure was a mystery. How deep did the building go? Where was the seat of the fire? How bad was it burning inside? Did the warehouse have a basement? The locals had already told him what was stored inside—rolls of cotton lace. He could only hope there were no LPG cylinders or other flammable chemicals hidden away.
Kumar’s branch kept the fire from spreading to the house opposite, but it wasn’t doing much to quell it. Now, the water pressure was decreasing. More bad news. The bowser following Kumar’s truck had broken down. No vehicle could make its way down the narrow approach road till the bowser was fixed. Other fire vehicles had already gathered at another road, a few hundred metres ahead, waiting for the bowser to be repaired.
Kumar watched as the water slowed to a trickle, and the fire roared back. Ten-foot flames shot up from the roof. Kumar first called it a Make 6 fire. Then he upgraded it to Medium.
Soon after, though it seemed like hours, the broken-down bowser was finally moved out of the way, and a single file of 20 trucks rolled in. They took up almost all of the winding, narrow road, so that even walking past them was a challenge, while relay hoses were attached to each. Now the defence could begin in earnest.
More firefighters arrived at the scene, among them Shukla and another station officer called Ravi Nath. The two quickly took control of events. One team went up the evacuated house on the left of the burning building, breaking through the common wall on the first floor and inserting a branch through the hole.
What they could not see because of the smoke was that the breach opened into the stairwell of the warehouse, and a thin wall separated the stairwell from the main building.
Shukla and his team began to tear down the shutter on the ground floor. They were in for a surprise—rolls of cotton blocked the entry all the way to the top. Smoke poured out. There was no way of getting inside, no way for the water to reach the fire.
“Start pulling all the cotton out,” Shukla shouted. “Get me a ceiling hook.” It took half an hour and more than 10 firemen to move enough of the rolls of smouldering lace to be able to see inside the warehouse. Immediately, a branch was introduced at this breach. Finally the water could reach some of the flames. Through the small opening you could see mountains of cotton on all sides. A makeshift mezzanine was on fire. Beneath this, on the right side of the building, the entrance to the basement glowed deep red. To the building’s left more stacks of cotton reached up to the ceiling of the ground floor. A stairwell going up to the first floor was also blocked with rolls of cotton.
Black smoke and orange fire billowed from the roof. White smoke silently rolled out of the ground floor. Beams of torchlight moved at abrupt angles through the dark alley, picking out the yellow helmets of the firemen in flashes.
At around 2am, with the water jets still going uninterrupted, and rolls of lace still being pulled out of the entrance of the warehouse, the station officers gathered to take stock.
“We’ll need to go in,” Ravi Nath said.
“But look at the cracks in the ceiling, this one’s about to go,” said another officer.
“If we don’t enter, we can’t fight this,” Shukla said.
“But look at the bulge on the floor of the mezzanine, that’s going to drop soon.”
Ravi Nath and Shukla ignored this comment. Their assessment was that the building would hold.
“Ravi, let’s go up the stairs and see what the first floor looks like,” Shukla said.
A firefighter needs to consider a number of interconnected factors when entering a burning building. The first is visual: does the structure look stable? Does it have a proper load-bearing system and good foundation? How hot are the walls? In this case, it was an illegal construction, and there were no apparent load-bearing structures visible. The warehouse stood on its four walls.
“It is very important to be completely calm and trust your feelings,” Shukla says. “You try and interpret what you are feeling. Sometimes it’s just sixth sense.”
He illustrates his point with the story of a fire last year in a Mayapuri bike showroom. The fire had been burning for 45 minutes, not a lot of time for a building fire. A crew of firemen had entered when the station officer leading them thought he felt the building shift a bit. He immediately withdrew the crew. Minutes later, the whole building collapsed.
Shukla has been in a building collapse himself, a decade ago. He calls it a ‘very nice experience’. It was a fire in a foam factory, where the heat was so intense that the firemen could only stand at a distance and hit it with water jets. There was a solitary fireman who had managed to go up a ladder to the first floor of the building and was fighting the fire from there. He looked in bad shape. Shukla went to relieve him.
“The heat was so intense I thought my insides would melt,” Shukla says. “I directed the high-pressure water jet towards the inside of the building, and the whole thing came rushing back at me as steam!”
A few minutes later, the building collapsed.
“I heard a voice saying ‘Shukla get down’,” he says. “I heard it thrice, but I was young and inexperienced then, and decided to ignore it. I was standing on the balcony, steps away from entering this room when the steam came back at me and stopped me in my tracks. Then I have no idea what happened.”
Shukla found himself still holding the branch but unable to recall where he was. “Then it suddenly occurred to me that the building had collapsed with me inside it, and that I must be right in the fire.”
Amazingly, Shukla found that he was not in the fire, that he was more or less unhurt, and that he could easily push aside the angles that had fallen on top of him. He sprang out of the building. Another fireman, who was hit by the boundary wall when the building collapsed, died of his injuries.
At 2.30am, Ravi Nath and Shukla go up the staircase with a branch, Shukla trailing a meter-long lace ribbon on his boots. They come down after half an hour, drenched in water and sweat, their faces black with soot.
“The first floor is brick red, it’s much more intense than down here,” Ravi Nath said. “Let’s get the basement and the mezzanine first.”
Shukla, with a branch in hand and Kumar backing him up, entered the mouth of the basement. The smoke had reduced visibility to near-zero. The only thing they could see was the red glow of the fire underneath. A fire is fought on the knees and the belly, since the smoke and heat is least closer to the ground. Shukla went down on his belly, slid down the hilly slope of the stacked cotton, and disappeared into the basement. Kumar held the hose and stayed at the mouth of the basement, just close enough to be within earshot. Ravi Nath and another fireman went up to the mezzanine on their knees, carrying another branch.
In the basement, Shukla and Kumar had to be very careful. When a firefighter enters a burning building, he is essentially fighting blind.
“When you enter an unknown environment blind, the first thing you keep in your mind is a broad view of the building,” Shukla says.
“The depth, length, breadth, the orientation, the location of the exterior walls. You count each step you take, remember every turn. You never let go of the branch or the hose because that’s your lifeline if you have to get out. You always have your other hand out, feeling for things. You remember each thing you feel on the way—it’s texture, temperature. You have to be receptive to every change in the ambient atmosphere. You keep your ears sharp for any odd sound. Is there a hissing sound? Is there a crackling sound? You are working only with touch and hearing.”
In a situation like this, with smoke that can choke you in minutes, with no visibility and intense heat, a single miscalculation can be fatal, and even a small room can feel like infinite space, like in a bad dream.
Suddenly, both Shukla and Ravi Nath’s branches stop pumping out water. A strange silence descends. Then they hear the pitter-patter of the water that’s soaked through the cotton and is now falling like rain everywhere inside. The droplets are stingingly hot. Then comes the muffled, all-enveloping crackle of the fire. Ravi Nath screams, “Turn the water back on! Turn the water back on!”
Shukla appears out of the smoke, scrambling on his belly out of the basement, helped by Kumar. “What happened to the water?” he asks, furious.
The gathered firemen don’t answer him. Someone from his own crew tells him that the water is over, that they are backing out the empty trucks to allow the trucks with full tanks to come through. Only then will the water supply resume.
Shukla takes off his helmet and sits down in front of the burning building. It is apparent that, apart from the three teams actually fighting the fire, very few of the 80-odd firemen are interested in tackling the fire seriously. There is no overall supervision, and a lack of coordination among those giving outside support to the three teams. No one has bothered to set up a lit staging area with extra tools and equipment. All the work is done in the dark, with much fumbling and stumbling. Each time a fireman comes out of the burning building and asks for water to drink, it takes ages to get to him. Sometimes, they just go back in without getting a drink. The incongruity is glaringly odd.
At 7am, 10 hours after the first call was made, the fire is finally ‘knocked down’. Now it’s a question of penetrating deep inside the building, bringing out all of the material in it, making sure there are no hidden embers, nothing smouldering in a corner. It will take hours. Thankfully, now there is daylight to work by.
Shukla and his team walk back wearily to their truck, parked a kilometre away.
“Our Diwali is made,” Shukla says with a wan smile.