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From time to time, Kathmandu’s local papers carry stories about natural and man-made events that have an impact on public safety. They include fires such as the Jyoti Bhawan fire and earthquakes.
Should earthquake and fire safety be a priority in Nepal? Nepal’s location and geological realities marks it as one very vulnerable to major earthquakes. The obvious answer - “yes”.
Earthquakes are unpredictable natural phenomena. The current state of the science of earthquake prediction cannot answer when and where will they strike, who and what will be affected, how far away will they be felt.
Luckily, modern earthquake (seismic) and geotechnical engineering sciences have developed reasonably. Structures can now be designed, detailed and constructed to resist earthquake forces. When designed, constructed and inspected per state of science requirements and under the supervision of qualified and trained professional engineers, earthquake-resistant structures have behaved as expected. The structural science of earthquake engineering practiced in combination with the science of non-structural science of fire safety enhances public safety and minimizes the loss of human lives. Buildings and structures may need demolition after fires and earthquakes.
The United States Government has contributed substantially in funds and resources towards Nepal’s disaster management. Disaster Risk Reduction Office is established within USAID. Different rescue groups including the Nepal Army and Police have been trained. National Society for Earthquake Technology-Nepal (NSET) is doing good work regarding disaster management.
Major focus, though, has been on post- disaster management. Successful post-disaster management cannot be achieved without implementing pre-disaster mitigation process. In Nepal, major challenges must be resolved so post-disaster management can succeed effectively. The irresponsible pace of on-going land developments, continued failure to address or upgrade to infrastructures in Kathmandu Valley remain as challenges. Such unacceptable behaviors make public safety difficult to achieve. Tangible actions and effective policies, based on pre-disaster mitigation measures, are needed to ensure public safety!
Pre-disaster mitigation processes depend on effective and enforceable codes, adequate and proper infrastructure development. Serious implementation of the state of the science of land development, non-structural safety, and structural seismic building design codes and construction practices, including seismic retrofit of existing buildings, need implementation.
How, when and where does one focus to initiate pre-disaster mitigation? Understandably, under the country’s prevailing environment, the many needs require evaluation and prioritization.
A facility that should be the focus of the pre- disaster mitigation process is the retrofit or the replacement of the existing structures housing the firefighting equipment and fire-fighting personnel in Kathmandu Valley. Fire-houses in Kathmandu, Lalitpur, Bhaktapur and other municipalities served the needs of the “Valley of Old”.
Fire house are essential public facilities that must be standing during pre and post-earthquake and fire disaster events and should be function for post-disaster operations. The structures that house the fire-fighting and rescue equipment and personnel therefore require higher levels of earthquake and fire-resistance capabilities.
Shouldn’t fire-houses like the Juddha Barun Yantra be seismically resistant? The Juddha Barun Yantra building, the only fire-house of Kathmandu Municipality, was built over 75 years ago after the drastic devastating impact of the 1934 earthquake. The building is a known unreinforced brick structure, housing fire-fighting equipment and personnel. In the event of earthquakes or fire disasters , it must be safe, operational. The fire-fighting equipment, though inadequate, must be functional. Many of these types of building of old are filled with adobe (“Kacchi Appa”) and are covered by fired brick. They are unreinforced. Compared to modern buildings, these structures are heavy in mass. Their behavior is also determined by soil conditions, height, materials of construction and quality of craftsmanship. Many such buildings have historically suffered massive damage during past earthquakes.
Known fire houses in other municipalities (such as Lalitpur, Bhaktapur, and others) will probably have the same kind of story to tell. Similar issues will be created regarding strategies that must be followed. No doubt these too should be seismically resistant!
Here are a few suggestions:
1. Assessments and Evaluation: All plans to address Nepal’s (including Kathmandu’s) fire safety realities by adding fire houses and fire-fighting equipment must begin with the following:
a. Assessment of the existing fire-fighting capabilities of municipalities to determine the type of equipment and facilities needed.
b. Assessment of the most appropriate locations of fire-houses based on the current and projected urban growth and planned scientific evaluations and projected needs.
c. Evaluation to determine if means and methods can be used to retrofit or upgrade the building.
d. Assessment of design and construction professionals. Fire houses are special structures that need to be designed by architects and engineers who have special expertise and experience in the field. Because, the design of fire houses is different from most building, designs should be peer-reviewed and evaluated by other competent professionals and fire personnel.
2. Build Brand New Fire Houses.
The most logical solution would be to replace these seismically vulnerable unreinforced buildings with modern seismic resistant buildings and facilities. They should be properly designed, constructed and certified per acceptable structural seismic and non-structural fire-life safety standards. Construction of new state of the art facilities to house new fire-fighting equipment and personnel should be given priority. These facilities should be designed based on specifications and requirements of fire-fighting equipment. This may be a challenge as different types of fire-fighting equipment are contributed to Nepal.
3. Relocate Fire Houses in Another Location.
Creating new fire stations in existing buildings in new locations seem to be in the works in Kathmandu Municipality. Fire-house locations must be guided by many factors such as response time, equipment types, community needs, infrastructure availability, and many other factors. A thorough and scientific seismic venerability assessment is imperative and must be made a priority before fire- fighting equipment and personnel are located in existing buildings in new sites.
4. Demolish Existing Fire Houses and Rebuilt on Existing Sites.
This option would be appropriate only if research/study determines that the site is the best site for a fire-housing to serve the needs of the community.
5. Retrofit the Existing Fire House.
The retrofitting of existing unreinforced masonry buildings to resist seismic resistance is possible but not recommended. Such decision should only be made after fully evaluating the structural, non-structural fire life safety of the existing building. Fire-houses are essential facilities. This may not be preferred way to go unless other factors govern.
The fire-fighting facility at Tribhuvan International Airport is primarily responsible to meet the emergency needs of an airport. Other equipment and facilities at the disposal of the Nepal Army are not within public view. Commenting on them would be inappropriate at this time. Their seismic resistance and fire resistance capabilities of any such assets however must be evaluated to meet current needs and situations.


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