Monday, December 07, 2009

Fire Safety: Philosophies Differ

Several years back, I frequented this neighborhood school here in the center of Rostov-on-Don. Interestingly, the school saw use as a German hospital in the early 1940's when the city was occupied by Nazi troops.

Nowadays, seven hundred-plus students attend this school, children from early elementary school up through high school.

On Sept 1st, children and families gather for the back-to-school ceremony, called the first bell.

The grand finale of first bell is a first grader's being carried around the area on the shoulders of a strong senior guy.

The young child gets to ring the first bell of the school year.

So, back then I went regularly to the school and helped out in English classes. I delighted in seeing the similarities and differences between schools in the U.S. and Russian schools. Eventually, I began noticing subtleties. For one thing of four big doors leading into the building, only one narrow door was unlocked during school hours. And in the back of the school, there was a single door and it was low and narrow. Students lined up to use either the front or back door.

Eventually I noticed stairwells and exits on the wings of the H-shaped building. But those stairwells were kept padlocked shut. What would you do in case of an emergency, like a fire? I asked an administrator one day.

We have keys for that very purpose. Someone would just unlock the doors, she said confidently.

It made me wonder, is there a fire marshal who makes unplanned visits? Are there regular fire drills? Chances are, nyet.

With last week's tragedy in Perm, reports say that the owner has been fined several times lately for not meeting fire code. But nothing had changed. Chances are that he paid the fine and slipped a few thousand rubles to the fire inspector and that was the end of it.

Interestingly, fire inspections can go the other direction too so that a building is shut down for reasons unrelated to safety. I've seen this first-hand. A certain facility located a block west of the school, had met Rostov fire code 9-plus years with nary a problem. Then a dispute arose in which the city wanted to purchase the building and property for a fraction of its value, and a conflict arose. Within days, the fire inspector arrived at the building for an unannounced inspection and announced that the flooring, for starters, was not up to code and he padlocked the whole 2nd level of the building.

The thing is, significantly more people die each year from fire-related deaths in Russia than in the U.S. or other western countries. Seems that there's a different outlook on fire safety: on the laws and on enforcing them. Beyond that, the bigger picture is a different outlook on the value of human life. Today is a day of mourning across Russia for the 120-some victims of the night club fire in Perm. Can't help but wonder if the fire inspector or the owner lost loved ones in the blaze.

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