31 October 2015

The Unrewarded, Despised Heroes? On the Deadly Fire in Bucharest Nightclub

Everyone loves a hero… that woman or man who comes to the rescue in difficult and dangerous situations. We praise heroes… we have (action) heroes fiction movies, stories and legends. Presidents, kings and queens hand out medals to people who saved others in dangerous situations. Sometimes, after a hero’s death we erect statues and monuments honouring them.

Last night (30th -31st October 2015) at least 26 people died and more than 100 were injured, many with severe burns in a fire in a night club in the city that was my home for 21 years – Bucharest (capital of Romania).

The tragedy was reported by local media, the BBC, CNN and many other international media organizations.

The local authorities’ response was OK, even good, but, nonetheless the tragedy left behind victims and a city of more than two million people in shock.

The firemen, the first aid responders, doctors and nurses all are, in some ways, heroes. They are the ones who came to the rescue, the ones who came to the hospitals in the middle of the night to take care of the wounded who went out to have fun at a concert and ended up scarred for life.

I can’t predict the future, but it is likely that in the foreseeable future the president of Romania will hand out some medals for bravery in the line of duty… and rightfully so.

In hindsight we will know who the heroes are and they will be rightfully praised.

There is, however, a different group of (anti)heroes and I’ll come back to them really soon.

How did the fire happen? The investigation is now in the early hours, so we don’t fully, definitely know what actually happened. Nonetheless, this is not the first tragedy in the world that involved a fire in a night club. Previous cases fit well with the “Swiss cheese” model for tragedies. In other words, there wasn’t one single factor that led to the tragedy, rather several holes in safety overlapped.

Early reports and eye-witness statements include the use of highly flammable materials for sound-proofing the nightclub (i.e. foam, artificial sponge), overcrowding, one fire-exit door being blocked, fireworks that went bad, narrow streets with lots of cars parked that made it difficult for fire trucks to intervene quickly etc.

In hindsight all of these are obvious danger factors. Nonetheless, these holes in safety are not unique to Bucharest nightclubs and there have been thousands of nights of fun that went on just fine despite the (now) obvious hazards.

Let me get back to the other category of (anti)heroes… they are the fire safety inspectors, the bureaucrats that give out permits for such establishments to go into business. There are lots of people whose daily jobs consist of enforcing boring, annoying safety regulations. These jobs aren’t fun! Particularly because many people including business owners find such regulations at least annoying if not obnoxious.

Indeed, business people and home owners want to get things going and complying with (fire) safety regulation isn’t exactly on top of their agendas.

And here come the unwanted, annoying, obnoxious and, most importantly, invisible heroes. The fire safety inspectors, work-safety inspector, building safety inspector etc.

Although we don’t particularly like these bureaucrats with their checklists and regulations, we have to admit that, when it comes to reducing the incidence and impact of disasters, they do a lot more than the praised heroes in saving lives and property. No! These people don’t get the spotlight or the praise of the community, but we should acknowledge their role, particularly when a tragedy strikes… we should remember that many other tragedies didn’t happen because a small, annoying bureaucratic inspector came in to check the application of safety rules in the restaurants, shops, apartment buildings, nightclubs etc. which we have visited in the past.

So, how come this tragedy in Bucharest happened? Again, I don’t fully know the answer. However, I know a thing or two about how things go there… When it comes to rules and regulations, Romania is doing great. The issue is with applying and enforcing them. Maybe the owners of the nightclub passed the safety inspection and then changed some things; maybe they bribed the safety inspector; maybe the business didn’t have the proper permits… there are lots of maybes…

What is sure is that at least 26 people died and at least another hundred were injured. It is also sure that bad design was involved (you don’t put inflammable foam with fireworks in an indoor space).

Beyond finding who is responsible for this tragedy (Romanians are great at assigning blame), I strongly believe that we need to learn from this unfortunate, though preventable, event.

We need to learn that the unappealing, badly paid, obnoxious and annoying fire inspector is a hero – an unrewarded, almost invisible and completely ignored hero.    

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