Bhandara hospital fire: Probe votes for engineers over PWD for hospitals’ upkeep

A detailed inquiry report into the Bhandara hospital fire that killed 10 newborns on January 9 has suggested that trained engineers should be employed at government hospitals that at present rely on the public works department (PWD) for maintenance works. The recommendation came after an inquiry committee found a lapse in electrical maintenance with only one electrical engineer appointed for the entire Bhandara district.

The six-member committee, comprising health officials, electrical engineers and fire officials, headed by Nagpur divisional commissioner Sanjeev Kumar, found that the fire in the sick newborn care unit (SNCU) of the district general hospital spread from a radiant warmer and electrical wiring system connected to it in the “outborn section”. “Even for small electrical faults like sparking, government hospitals have to rely on PWD. It is essential to provide separate staff to hospitals. We have also advised special training to such engineers,” a member of the inquiry committee said. While the report has blamed the Bhandara civil surgeon for delay in fire audit among other lapses, it has also raised questions over the PWD’s role in maintaining health department buildings.

The Bhandara district general hospital started functioning in 1981 without a no-objection certificate (NOC) from the fire department. In 2015, when the hospital constructed an extension to open the SNCU, medical store and a Nutrition Rehabilitation Centre (NRC), for a second time no NOC from fire department was obtained and no fire audit carried out. “The Bhandara SNCU was constructed after the Maharashtra Fire Prevention and Life Safety Measures Act, 2006. Ideally the PWD must get all permissions before handing over the building to the health department,” an officer, part of the probe, said. In November 2020, the Bhandara district health office had sent a letter to Bhandara Nagarparishad to conduct a fire audit. In 2018 too a letter requesting fire audit was sent to Nagarparishad. Till January 9, no fire audit was undertaken.

The inquiry report has advised regular mock drills to inspect fire equipment in hospitals. In a meeting on Wednesday between State Health Minister Rajesh Tope with senior health officials and Maharashtra Fire Services, a suggestion was given to rope in NGOs and trained volunteers henceforth to conduct fire audit in all government hospitals, primary health centres and sub-centres. Officials from the Maharashtra Fire Services informed the government that they do not have adequate staff to inspect all government hospitals and provide audit reports for each.

N Ramaswamy, director, National Health Mission, had earlier told The Indian Express that a circular has been issued to all district officials following the Bhandara fire to accept handover of hospitals only after all permissions are in place. “In future, contracts will be drawn to bifurcate responsibility between the health department and the PWD over who will get NOC from fire department and occupational certificate. Without necessary permission, no hospital will start functioning,” he said.

Maharashtra Health Secretary Dr Pradeep Vyas said he received the inquiry report at 2pm on Wednesday. “We have to go through it. Action will be taken very soon,” he said. Tope said a decision based on the report will be taken on Thursday.

An assessment of 484 government hospitals in Maharashtra, undertaken a day after the Bhandara incident, found that at least 90 percent of hospitals do not possess an NOC from the fire department. Another 81.8 percent never conducted a fire-safety audit in their hospitals and only 218 hospitals (45 per cent) had conducted a mock fire drill in the past. Dr Vyas said districts will submit proposals on installation of fire equipment after necessary audits. “We will create an action plan, consolidate district reports and submit a proposal,” he said.