By Ali Ranjipour
July 03, 2020
Tehran is vulnerable to crisis. This is the reality of a city where more than 10 percent — 17 percent including the suburbs — of the country’s total population live, and which produces a quarter of Iran’s economy. The center of gravity is heavy, but not very safe. It is highly exposed, and, worse, unprepared for crisis.
Deadly and destructive fires are a relatively common occurrence around the world. Take for example the tragic fire at Grenfell Tower in London, in which 72 people died. The British government spent 200 million pounds to change the flammable façade of about 150 buildings similar to Grenfell. In addition, building safety regulations were revised.
In Iran, there have been two deadly fires in less than four years. The collapse of the Plasco Building on January 19, 2017 is considered to be one of the biggest urban traumas in contemporary history, an event that severely affected almost all components of Iranian society. Now the deadly fire at the Sina Athar Clinic has once again plunged society into public grief. Nineteen people died, and many others were injured.
But apart from public grief, what else has happened in Iran? What steps have been taken to protect people from fires?
Safety procedures and updates have been put down on paper, but in practice, nothing has changed. A year on from the Plasco Building fire, authorities publicly identified 243 buildings in Tehran with similar safety hazards. Three years after the accident, officials said: “Existing buildings need fire safety instructions, which fortunately were put into operation at the Road, Housing, and Urban Development Research Center after the Plasco Building accident, and are now about 90 percent complete. There is hope that these guidelines will be completed in the coming months and will be approved and incorporated into the National Building Regulations, which will help the civil engineering and building community.”
In Chapter 3 of the National Building Code, which outlines measures to protect buildings against fire, at least four pages are devoted to the construction of medical centers and hospitals. They detail the physical condition of the building, from the length and width of the corridors to the number of emergency exits. If the building housing Sina Athar Clinic had these measures in place, the number of casualties would have undeniably been less.
But what if a building is old and was not built with safety measures in mind? The national regulations also address this issue in Chapter 22, defining the conditions for inspection, the issuance of warnings, evacuation, and even the demolition of “unsafe buildings and equipment.” A section allocated to “Fire Protection” states that a building’s safety is determined by how strictly it adheres to the regulations set out in Chapter 3 of the National Building Code and the rules stipulated by Iran’s fire department organization.
So based on this, the Sina Athar Clinic building should have been updated and made secure and safe, or else closed down, years ago. This is obviously not what happened.
Mohsen Hashemi, the chairman of the Tehran City Council, visited the scene of the tragedy on Wednesday, July 1. During his visit, he said “the municipality had warned the clinic officials about the fire extinguishing system four times in various years and had intended to seal off the building at one poin.”
The full extent of the tragedy is not yet clear. The fire was said to be caused by non-standard storage conditions for oxygen capsules in the basement of the clinic. It is not clear whether the Ministry of Health’s standards for hospital equipment maintenance were not up to date or rigorous enough, or whether hospital officials failed to comply with the protocol for maintaining oxygen capsules or other equipment. However, whatever the storage conditions were and whatever the standards might be, this does not negate the impact of poorly-built facility likely had on the situation, and what it contributed to the disaster. Inadvertent or intentional errors can lead to fires in all buildings. Buildings that comply with safety measures ensure financial compensation will be paid out in an event of a fire, and hopefully lives will be saved. In a situation where an old, outdated building catches fire, deadly disasters are more likely, and it is difficult to establish accountability or initiate claims. When lives are lost, the whole society is affected, and even when they aren’t, those responsible do not face legal repercussions. Again, this impacts the whole of society.
No one knows what would have happened if the municipality had stood firm and closed down the hospital. Given the current situation, was it really possible that it could have done so? Was there an opportunity to address such issues in the midst of such extreme economic, health, and political concerns?
The Sina Athar Hospital was not and is not the only unsafe medical center in Tehran. And medical centers are not the only high-risk buildings and public facilities in the capital. Many public buildings and facilities are constructed similarly, or are in worse conditions, and many of them do not follow basic safety protocols. The Gisha Bridge, for example, the disassembling of which began a year ago, has been one of the city’s most dangerous structures for years. A catastrophe could strike at any moment. The bridge was built as a temporary structure in 1973 for the 1974 Asian Games but its demolition has been delayed 45 years. After many years, fresh concerns emerged in June 2019. Then plans to dismantle it got underway.
If Tehran was really to become a safe city, the Gisha Bridge would have been brought down, a priority concern over other highways and other bridges. But funding for the project took half a century because other issues, such as the political and economic of city managers and officials, and perhaps issues within society, were more important than public safety.
The potential for Gisha Bridge to end in disaster was thwarted at the last minute, but luck was not on the side of the victims of the Plasco Building or the Sina Athar Clinic fires. In the wake of the recent tragedy, no plans have been made public about what might happen to Tehran’s other dangerous structures.
A great part of the capital is vulnerable, worn out, and fragile, and the scope for danger looms large, from earthquakes and land subsidence to fires. Once again, a tragedy has become a reminder of people’s vulnerability, and the crisis that looms is overwhelming, especially given Iranian officials’ apparent unwillingness to do what is needed to protect the city’s people.