A fire in a Pakistani clothing factory kills more than 250 people to become the deadliest industrial and manufacturing fire ever recorded by NFPA.
Crowds gather in front of the Ali Enterprises garment factory in Karachi, Pakistan, following a deadly fire in September. (Photo: Corbis)
By Scott Sutherland
The number of people killed in the September 12 garment factory fire in Karachi, Pakistan, varies depending on the source, but the most frequently cited number in recent updates is 258, with hundreds more injured. While the exact figure has been difficult for Pakistani authorities to pin down, even ballpark estimates put the event in a class of its own. According to NFPA’s Fire Analysis & Research Division, the Karachi fire has become, by a wide margin, the deadliest fire ever recorded in a manufacturing or industrial facility.
That benchmark had previously been established by the Kader toy factory fire, which killed 188 workers near Bangkok, Thailand, in 1993. Before Kader, the deadliest such incident had been another garment factory fire: the Triangle Waist Co. fire in New York City in 1911, which killed 146 people and led to sweeping reforms in workplace safety in the United States, including the creation of NFPA’s Life Safety Code.
The Karachi fire came on the heels of another deadly fire in a Pakistani industrial hub, this one in the city of Lahore. On September 11, at least 23 workers died in a shoe factory fire that was believed to have started as a result of a faulty electrical generator.
The fires in Pakistan are the latest examples of the worldwide fire problem that has plagued the garment manufacturing industry for decades. Last year’s NFPA Journal story on the 100th anniversary of the Triangle fire (nfpa.org/trianglefire) highlighted the similarities of many of the deadliest garment factory fires over the last century: few accessible exits, locked doors, no fire protection systems, questionable enforcement practices, the grim spectacle of workers jumping from rooftops or upper-story windows to escape the flames. Such fires now tend to occur in developing nations from Honduras to Bangladesh, where dangerous working conditions are part of the collateral risk associated with what critics describe as the global garment industry’s “race to the bottom,” the ongoing search for manufacturing locations that offer the cheapest labor while presenting factory owners with the fewest regulatory hurdles.
That description is being widely applied to the Ali Enterprises factory in Karachi, which reportedly produced denim products for American and European labels — part of Pakistan’s textiles industry that accounts for nearly $14 billion annually, or the vast majority of the country’s exports. Reports estimate as many as 1,000 workers were in the multi-story building when the fire began, but that only one exit was available — the rest had been locked. Most of the building’s windows were barred. Some people were killed or injured trying to jump to safety, but most of the casualties were workers who, suddenly confronted by smoke and flame, had nowhere to go. Conditions were similar in the shoe factory fire; a relative of one of the workers killed in the blaze told the Associated Press that there was no way out of the building once the fire began.
Early reports included conflicting accounts of the cause of the fire, including the possibility of an electrical short, but no official cause had been provided. CNN has reported that both a police investigation as well as a government inquiry into the fire have been completed and that the findings are expected to be made public soon.
A new wrinkle to the inspection and enforcement problem
Fundamental problems with inspection and enforcement — common denominators in most garment industry fires — were quickly brought to light in the Karachi fire, but the incident offered a new twist on the subject. In August, the Karachi factory had been inspected and given a favorable review by Social Accountability International (SAI), a U.S.-based nonprofit monitoring group that evaluates working conditions in factories worldwide. The New York Times reported that SAI had inspected the Karachi factory and found that it met international standards in nine areas necessary for what SAI describes as “decent workplaces.” Those areas include health and safety, elements of which include systems to “detect, avoid, and respond to risks” and “worker right to remove from imminent danger.” For meeting those standards, the Ali Enterprises factory was given SAI’s prestigious SA8000 certification.
As the Times reported, though, SAI is heavily financed by industry and relies on affiliates around the world to conduct inspections, aspects that make the SAI designations almost meaningless, according to some critics. “The whole system is flawed,” Scott Nova, executive director of the Worker Rights Consortium, a U.S.-based monitoring group financed by American universities, told the Times. “This demonstrates, more clearly than ever, that corporate-funded monitoring systems like SAI cannot and will not protect workers.”
SAI told the Times that it had suspended work in Pakistan with the affiliate that had conducted the inspection of the Ali Enterprises factory, and that it was undertaking “a broad review of its entire certification process.”
The industrial and manufacturing fires in Karachi, a city of 20 million, are part of a much larger fire problem in the country. A recent study conducted by researchers at NED University of Engineering and Technology in Karachi looked at buildings around the city that had experienced fires, and found that “negligence, violation of building codes, unawareness of safety measures, carelessness, and lack of training were the major causes of fire incidents. An acute shortage of facilities and infrastructure for fire fighting was noted.” As a consequence, the researchers said, “fire hazard poses a serious threat to economic and social activities [in large cities throughout Pakistan]. Unfortunately, the scale of this threat is not fully recognized in Pakistan, despite the fact that recent fire incidences . . . have resulted in considerable economic and life losses.”
Olga Caledonia, executive director for International Operations at NFPA, says the organization can assist developing countries through steps like memorandums of understanding, which promote NFPA codes and standards and provide translated versions of key documents. “This is an area where NFPA can really help on a local level, by providing governments with the tools to protect communities and by providing authorities having jurisdiction with specific documents to enforce regulations,” she said. NFPA maintains an indirect relationship with the Fire Protection Association of Pakistan through the Confederation of Fire Protection Associations – International, she said, but no direct relationships currently exist with the country.
Until enforcement is seen as a worthwhile part of the safety equation, though, incidents like the Karachi fire will only become more common, Caledonia says. “Conditions like those in Karachi exist all over the world, and not just in the garment industry,” she says. “We can do everything possible to spread our safety message and make our codes available, but ultimately it’s up to governments to protect their people. Monitoring industry is an important part of that, but governments have to be willing to take those steps.”
FIRE PREVENTION WEEK
Domino’s, Legoland, & Home Depot
Quick—what do they have in common? They all partnered with NFPA to spread a variety of FPW safety messages, of course
Some big-name corporations teamed up with NFPA to promote Fire Prevention Week (FPW) in October.
Nearly 200 Home Depot stores organized fire safety workshops for nearly 300,000 participants who received materials on topics including smoke alarms and home escape planning. The latter tied into this year’s FPW theme, “Have Two Ways Out.”
As part of Home Depot’s effort to raise fire safety awareness, the home improvement chain is also donating 50,000 Kidde smoke alarms to fire departments via an in-store challenge encouraging employees to promote and sell the devices. Home Depot will distribute the smoke alarms to departments nearest the top-selling stores by the end of the year.
Legoland® Florida, the 150-acre theme park in Winter Haven, also partnered with NFPA to promote FPW-themed activities. At the park’s Fire Safety Day on October 4, Kathleen Marler of Indialantic, Florida, was announced the winner of NFPA’s video contest that asked contestants to create a theme song for the park’s fire safety show, “The Big Test.” Marler received a trip to the park, hotel accommodations, and up to $2,000 towards travel expenses.
During the park’s Firefighter Fridays in October, firefighters from the state’s fire marshal’s office and Polk County Fire and Rescue manned learning stations to discuss the importance of smoke alarms and home emergency evacuations. Guests also had a photo op with a Lego mural inspired by this year’s FPW theme.
Pickup and delivery
NFPA celebrated its five-year partnership with Domino’s Pizza during FPW by continuing to spread fire safety messages with the help of a record number of fire departments across the country.
Participating Domino’s stores placed an NFPA tip sheet on escape planning atop pizza boxes slated for delivery. Nearly 50 fire departments in participating U.S. cities, including Miami and Detroit, delivered some of the pies on their fire trucks and checked homes for working smoke alarms. The pizzas were free if the alarms were operational, and the firefighters gave residents new devices if the old ones weren’t working.
“FPW is always one of the most visible activities for NFPA, but we are constantly looking for new ways to expand our reach,” says Lorraine Carli, NFPA’s vice president of Communications. “Through these new and expanded partnerships, we are able to get life-saving fire safety messages in front of more people in more communities across the country. These programs allow millions of people to be exposed to NFPA and its messages.”
For more on FPW, visit fpw.org.
Fire Dogs, Hero Dogs, Red Carpets & Golden Girls
NFPA’s Sparky the Fire Dog® hobnobbed with Hollywood glitterati during the American Humane Association’s (AHA) Hero Dog Awards at the Beverly Hilton Hotel in Los Angeles on October 6. NFPA’s mascot was the official spokesdog for the ceremony, which honored canines that have performed extraordinary acts of heroism. Prior to the awards ceremony, Sparky strolled the red carpet with assistance from actress and animal rights activist Betty White (far left); Lorraine Carli, NFPA’s vice president of Communications; and puppeteer Tim Lagasse, who created the Sparky puppet. White was on hand to accept AHA’s Legacy Award for her commitment to animal welfare.
– Fred Durso, Jr.
HOME FIRE SPRINKLERS
In Massachusetts, installation of home fire sprinklers continues despite regulatory opposition.
By Fred Durso, Jr.
In February, the Massachusetts Board of Building Regulations and Standards defeated an NFPA-backed proposal amending the state’s one- and two-family building code to require home fire sprinklers. But the decision hasn’t stopped everyone from installing the systems.
In September, the Home Fire Sprinkler Coalition hosted an open house that showcased a new sprinklered home in the town of Northbridge. The homeowners have two 10-year-old sons with spastic quadriplegia cerebral palsy that has left them nonverbal and immobile. Their new three-bedroom home is equipped with a lift system and home fire sprinklers, which they say added to their peace of mind; if there’s a fire, sprinklers will give them more time to get out. The sprinklers and sprinkler design were donated by a sprinkler supplier and fire protection services company.
A day before the open house, state Fire Marshal Stephen Coan testified before the Board of Building Regulations and Standards to once again urge members to amend the building code to require home fire sprinklers in new construction. “As I suspected, the reception wasn’t positive,” Coan said at the open house. “We will continue to press the board … so that all people in this neighborhood and other neighborhoods can be safe.”
For more information, visit HomeFireSprinkler.org.
More sprinklered homes
Elsewhere in Massachusetts, residential sprinklers are protecting another crop of new homeowners. The first phase of development at Legacy Farms, a 730-acre (295-hectare) development in the town of Hopkinton, will eventually include one- and two-family homes with sprinkler systems.
Concerned about the close proximity of the dwellings to each other and the impact on fire spread, Hopkinton Fire Chief Ken Clark initiated discussions with the Hopkinton Planning Board about protecting the structures with sprinklers. The board voted in favor of sprinklering more than 260 homes in accordance with NFPA 13D, Installation of Sprinkler Systems in One- And Two-Family Dwellings and Manufactured Homes.
Similar concerns prompted the inclusion of sprinklers in about 50 homes under construction in a development in the town of South Weymouth.
Plumbing board OKs sprinkler installation
Finally, the Massachusetts state plumbing board recently voted to allow licensed plumbers to install residential sprinklers in one-and two-family dwellings.
The decision comes following a presentation by Timothy Travers, NFPA’s regional fire sprinkler specialist for the New England, Mid-Atlantic, and Southern Regions, to the Massachusetts Board of State Examiners of Plumbers and Gas Fitters. The presentation focused on the benefits of multipurpose piping systems, as opposed to separate systems, that can serve both a home’s fire protection and domestic water needs. Since multipurpose systems use potable water — and licensed plumbers engage in the installation, alteration, and repair of plumbing using potable water—the board agreed that installing multipurpose systems was within the scope of a plumber’s responsibilities.
It also determined that a professional engineer must design and size the system; that the plumbing portion of the system be inspected by a local plumbing official; and that the fire protection aspect of the system be inspected by a fire official.
Travers points to cost issues when explaining why the decision is a win for sprinkler advocates. “Part of the problem we’ve been seeing is water purveyors requiring separate lines or extra lines for sprinkler systems, which can drive up the cost,” he says. “A multipurpose system can help keep those costs manageable.”
New Recipe for Safety
Cooking fires — the leading cause of home structure fires—prompt new research study to determine the most effective mitigation techniques
Cooking remains the leading cause of home structure fires in the U.S., but new research by NFPA is analyzing these incidents, as well as the technologies designed to prevent them, with the idea of better understanding this common source of residential fires.
The project, “Development of Standard Cooking Fire Scenarios and Candidate Test Methods for Evaluating Cooking Fire Mitigation Technologies,” initiated by the Fire Protection Research Foundation, will examine three areas: fires starting in a pot or pan on a burner; fires from food spillage onto a burner; and items that can catch fire on or near a burner. The project was funded by an $88,000 grant from the National Institute of Standards and Technology, and a report is slated for completion by the end of 2013.
According to NFPA’s Home Structure Fires report, released earlier this year, U.S. fire departments responded to an average of 371,700 home structure fires annually between 2006 and 2010, resulting in nearly 2,600 deaths and $7.2 billion in property damage each year. For every household cooking fire reported, the report said, there were 50 that went unreported.
“It’s our hope that this project will take us one step closer toward the further development and market implementation of technologies to reduce the impact of cooking fires,” says Kathleen Almand, the Foundation’s executive director.
Download the Home Structure Fires report at nfpa.org/2012homefires.
Funding Cut for Near-Miss Reporting System
The International Association of Fire Chiefs (IAFC) is trying to continue its National Fire Fighter Near-Miss Reporting System despite having funding cut for the program.
In September, the federal Assistance to Firefighters Grant Program decided not to renew funding for the reporting system. The Near-Miss Reporting System is a free online service that promotes firefighter safety by sharing anecdotes and lessons learned from the field.
Since then, IAFC has taken steps to keep the reporting system running. The association has secured “emergency-based funding” for the short-term continuation of the program; developed a sustainability task force of research, technology, and emergency services experts to discuss long-term solutions; and has met with federal grant program staff to consider methods to approach future grant opportunities.
“The Near-Miss Reporting System has allowed the fire and emergency service to come so far in reducing line-of-duty deaths, and we’re going to take aggressive action to be sure fire departments don’t lose that ground,” said Mark Light, IAFC’s chief executive officer and executive director. “We’ll be working to understand what areas the [Assistance to Firefighter Grant] reviewers perceived as deficient and what we can do to come back with a strong proposal for future funding.”
NFPA Names Regional Director, Wildfire Staffer
Gary Honold, a former captain with the Missoula, Montana, Fire Department, was recently named NFPA’s regional director for the Northwest region. Honold will work with state and local authorities to promote NFPA codes and standards while supporting research and public education in nine states: Alaska, Idaho, Montana, Nebraska, North Dakota, Oregon, South Dakota, Washington, and Wyoming. Email Honold at email@example.com.
Also joining NFPA is Aron Anderson, who will provide technical support for fireadapted.org, the program website for the new Fire Adapted Communities (FAC) initiative. Launched this year, FAC provides resources from a coalition of experts aimed at reducing wildfire risks in communities throughout the U.S. Prior to joining NFPA, Anderson worked as a resource support analyst for the North Central All-Hazards Region in Colorado and as a research intern for the Adams County (Colorado) Office of Emergency Management.
Car Fire Tip Sheet and Hoarding Guide Released
NFPA has developed a new tip sheet that offers guidance on car fires, the most common stemming from mechanical or electrical issues. The tip sheet, available at nfpa.org/carfiretips, includes tidbits on fire prevention, identifying the warning signs of an imminent fire, and safely responding to a car fire.
NFPA’s new two-page hoarding guide offers insight into the fire safety hazards associated with the excessive accumulation of materials in the household setting. Considered a mental disorder, hoarding can lead to blocked exits and excessive fire loading. The guide instructs the fire service on identifying hoarding situations and getting the community involved in addressing the issue. Download the guide at nfpa.org/hoardingguide.
Firewise Toolkit Released, Backyards & Beyond Proposals Due
NFPA’s Wildland Fire Operations Division has released a free toolkit with an array of resources aimed at reducing wildfire risk. Materials include a guide to Firewise® Communities Program principles and a checklist for homeowners. The toolkit can be found on the “information and resources” page on the Firewise website, firewise.org.
The wildland fire division is also accepting proposals for the Backyards & Beyond Wildland Fire Education Conference in Salt Lake City, Utah, November 14-16, 2013. Conference themes include community safety approaches and strategies; home construction and landscape design; research; technology, policy, and regulations; and wildfire planning, suppression, and operations. Submissions will be accepted via the Firewise website by December 31.