Answer: The Fire officer's demand to check the fire extinguishing equipment/arrangements are legitimate. They are duty bound to look into such compliances. However the liability of installation of fire safety equipments vary. Before answering the main query we should first know the background of laws which require the presence of fire safety equipments. Law mandates that each high-rise should have fire extinguishers, hose reel, dry/wet riser, automatic sprinkler system, manually operated electric fire alarm systems, automatic detection and alarm system, underground static water storage tank, terrace tank, and so on.1 Owner or occupier of the building are required to make or carry out arrangements necessary for fire prevention etc.2 This requirement differs from one occupancy to another and also on the basis of the height of the building.3 They are further categorized into regular building and high risk building.4
Public Health & Safety is a subject of state list, which means that the states are free to come up with their own laws and relative amendments regarding fire safety rules and regulations. However, fire safety rules in different states and union territories are more or less the same. Minor modifications have been made to suit the requirements of metro cities or as the case may be. For the purpose of answering this question we have taken example of laws of West Bengal.
The establishment in the current question can be safely categorized as a “high rise building”(14 and a half meters or more).5 National Building code provides for categorization of any building. As per the Fire Services Rules and National Building Code of India, the installation of the minimum fire safety equipment is mandatory in Schools, High Rise Buildings and Shopping Complexes. Building bye-laws provide for minimum standards for fire prevention and the same is mandated by the fire prevention laws.6 West Bengal Fire Service Act, 1950 also define “building rules” which are to be followed along with other laws.7 Fire prevention measure and safety measures are interpreted as per definition provided under building rules.8
Status of people resident in the building:
The residents of the building in the current matter squarely fall within the definition of “Occupier.”9 Therefore it makes it mandatory not only for the owner of commercial establishment to pay for the fire safety equipment, but also for the residents.10
Liability of building occupants:
West Bengal Fire Safety Act, 1950 does not specifically talks about proportionate division of cost of fire safety installations. Further, the appropriate government has also not notified rules in this regard.11 However, the interpretation of S.11A & 11B is wide enough to cover each and every occupant. Some reference can be drawn from Rule 8(1) of the Delhi Fire Prevention And Fire Safety Rules, 1987. This point is of utmost significance for answering the query posed. This rule clearly states that where the building or premises is owned or occupied by more than one person, the responsibility for providing the fire safety and fire preventive measures as per the directions of the nominated authority or the Chief Fire Officer in the whole building will be shared in proportion to the area occupied or owned by individual owner or occupier as the case may be.12
Since the laws in most of the states are identical , it can be safely asserted that occupants anywhere around the country would have to comply with similar provisions. This makes it quite obvious that the responsibility and costs should be divided among the occupants according to the proportion of area occupied by each of them. Therefore it would be advisable for the owner of commercial establishment to place an application in the office of Chief Fire Officer requesting him to revisit the sharing of costs and related divisions. The relevant authority in turn will notify the occupants of the building to bear the cost proportionately.
Non compliance with the provisions provided under Chapter IIIA (S.11A & S.11B) attracts strong penalty. The law provides for imprisonment of 3 years which may extend up to 5 years and fine of Rs 20,000 which may extend to 5 Lakh Rupees. Further if the offense is a continuing one, a further fine of Rs 1000 per day can be imposed which may extend to 10,000 Rupees.13 Apart from this proceedings under S. 36 and S.37 can also take place simultaneously.14 Henceforth it is recommended that the laws and rules under this Act should not be taken lightly. It would be advisable to pay for installation of fire safety equipments even if the rest of the occupants are reluctant to cooperate as the collective penalty imposed might be higher than what an occupant might be able to save by evading. But the occupant taking such responsibility can recover the charges so incurred by a simple procedure of placing an application before the Chief Fire Officer or the Director.