Endangering lives by killing initiative

A few weeks ago there was a tragic fire at a very famous hospital in Kolkata in which 87 people lost their lives. I was obsessed with trying to find out what lessons could be learnt so that we protect others and ourselves.

The root cause for any failure can always be traced back to a handful of reasons, the usual culprits are incompetent leadership, poor management,  inappropriate technology, shoddy design, incompetent staff and negligent people.

It is difficult for most people to appreciate that the seeds of a tragedy are sown long before the bitter fruit arrives.  In the case of the Kolkata hospital fire,  this is the inside story as narrated by someone who knows.  About two weeks prior to the killer blaze erupting, a similar fire had taken place at the very same hospital in the basement where inflammable supplies were stored till the ceiling.  The staff of the outsourced security firm promptly responded with confidence and took the initiative. The security immediately informed the fire brigade, used the extinguishers and doused the fire. The crisis was tackled very well almost in textbook fashion. 

Rather than rewarding the security staff and giving a citation for their quick presence of mind, the management of the hospital was furious. They fined and dismissed the concerned security staff for getting carried away, consuming expensive fire fighting supplies, causing inconvenience to residents and being the cause for receiving a warning from the fire brigade. In addition to this the security firm was warned of termination of their contract if their staff showed excessive enthusiasm in the future.

When the killer fire reoccurred, no one in the security staff took any action, waiting for the sleeping management to wake up and tell them what to do.  It was nearly a full hour before the alarm was raised and the fire brigade informed.  Unfortunately by then the situation had gone completely out of control and the seeds of mismanagement unleashed a disaster to be paid by innocent people.

The failures was poor leadership, incompetent management and faulty systems of technology
What are the lessons for individuals and organisations?
  • Attack the root cause of problems and not the symptoms.
  • Attack the problem and not the individuals.
  • Morale of  your people decides whether you will be a winner or a loser. If you destroy their sense of initiative then the price to be paid is often very high.
  • Safety is non negotiable and cannot be compromised. 
Fatal fires like the one in Kolkata are likely to be repeated as long as leaders and managers look ONLY at financial considerations while ignoring other parameters such as safety, quality, efficiency etc. The price to be paid for negligence eventually is simply too high and unacceptable.

Another reason why the why this problem is likely to strike again is that some unscrupulous suppliers of fire extinguishers conspire with  corrupt purchasing and safety staff  to replace  dry chemical powders in the fire extinguishers with similarly looking chalk powder which is completely useless in dousing any type of fire.

It is quite likely that if you often visit or work in a government owned or financed building and where the fire fighting system has been purchased only on the basis of lowest price tender then your life might be at risk due to sloppy management and dysfunctional fire fighting equipment. The danger is highest in government schools, hospitals, where the young, weak and the infirm have no voice.

Look within your own organisation and you will find that there are more actions by leaders and managers which demotivate and destroy rather than encourage and support.