Earthquake preparedness retrofitting fire stations and rebuilding them

May 27, 2015 |


Earthquakes, by nature, are unpredictable. When and where will they strike? Who and what will be affected by them? How far away will they be felt? The science of earthquake prediction in its current state cannot answer these questions with pin-point accuracy.

Luckily, modern earthquake (seismic) and geotechnical engineering sciences have reached reasonable levels of development. Structures can now be designed, detailed and constructed to resist earthquake forces. When designed, constructed and inspected per scientific requirements,and under the supervision of qualified and

trained professional engineers, earthquake-resistant structures have behaved as expected. The structural science of earthquake engineering and the non-structural science of safety, when combined, minimise the loss of human lives even when buildings need demolition after earthquakes.

Should earthquake safety be a concern in Nepal? Nepal’s location and geological realities mark it as one very vulnerable to major earthquakes. The answer is obvious: “Yes”.

The United States Government has contributed substantially in funds and resources towards Nepal’s disaster management; a Disaster Risk Reduction Offi ce is established within USAID. Different rescue groups including the Nepal Army and Police have been trained, and the National Society for Earthquake Technology-Nepal (NSET) is doing good work regarding disaster management.

The major focus, though, has been on post-disaster management. Successful post-disaster management cannot be achieved without implementing predisaster mitigation processes. In Nepal, major challenges must be resolved so that post-disaster management can succeed effectively. The irresponsible pace of ongoing land development, and continued failure to address issues or upgrade infrastructure in Kathmandu Valley remain challenges. Such unacceptable behaviours make public safety diffi cult to achieve. Tangible action and effective policies based on pre-disaster mitigation measures are needed to ensure public safety.

Pre-disaster mitigation processes depend on effective and enforceable codes, adequate and proper infrastructure development. Serious implementation of the science of land development, nonstructural safety, and structural seismic building design codes and construction practices, including seismic retrofi tting of existing buildings, need implementation.

How, when and where does one focus to initiate pre-disaster mitigation? Understandably, under the country’s prevailing environment, the many needs require evaluation and prioritisation.

In a small but effective way, the predisaster mitigation process should focus on the retrofi tting or the replacement of existing structures housing fi re-fi ghting equipment and fi re-fi ghting personnel in Kathmandu Valley. Firehouses in Kathmandu, Lalitpur, Bhaktapur and other municipalities still serve the needs of the valley of old.

In a small but effective way, the pre-disaster mitigation process should focus on the retrofi tting or the replacement of existing structures housing fire-fighting equipment and fire-fighting personnel in Kathmandu Valley.


Firehouses are essential public facilities that must be standing pre- and postearthquake and fire disaster events and should be functional for post-disaster operations. The structures that house fire-fi ghting and rescue equipments and personnel therefore require higher levels of earthquake and fire-resistance capabilities. Shouldn’t fi re-houses like the Juddha Barun Yantra be seismically resistant? The Juddha Barun Yantra building, the only fire-house in Kathmandu Municipality, was built over 75 years ago after the drastic, devastating impact of the 1934 earthquake. The building is, as is commonly known, an unreinforced brick structure, housing fire-fighting equipment and personnel. In the event of earthquakes or fi re disasters, the fire station must be safe and operational;


the fire-fighting equipment, though inadequate, must be functional. However, many of these types of buildings of old are filled with adobe (Kacchi Appa) and are covered by fired brick. They are unreinforced. Compared to modern buildings, these structures are heavy in mass. Their behaviour is also determined by soil conditions, height, materials of construction and quality of craftsmanship. Many such buildings have historically suffered massive damage during past earthquakes.

Known fire houses in other municipalities (such as Lalitpur, Bhaktapur and others) will probably have the same kind of stories to tell. Similar issues will be created regarding strategies that must be followed. No doubt these too should be seismically resistant.

Need for assessments and evaluation All plans to address Nepal’s (including Kathmandu’s) fi re safety realities by adding fi rehouses and fi re-fi ghting equipment must begin with the following:

  • Assessment of the existing firefi ghting capabilities of municipalities to determine the type of equipment and facilities needed.
  • Assessment of the most appropriate locations of fire-houses based on the current and projected urban growth and planned scientific evaluations and projected needs.
  • Evaluation to determine if means and methods can be used to retrofit or upgrade the building.
  • Assessment of design and construction professionals.

Fire houses are special structures that need to be designed by architects and engineers who have special expertise and experience in the fi eld. Because, the design of fire houses is different from that most buildings, designs should be peerreviewed and evaluated by other competent professionals and fi re personnel.

Building new firehouses might be an answer

The most logical solution would be to replace these seismically vulnerable unreinforced buildings with modern seismicresistant buildings and facilities. They should be properly designed, constructed and certifi ed per acceptable structural seismic and non-structural firelife safety standards. Construction of new, state-of-the-art facilities to house new firefi ghting equipment and personnel should be given priority. These facilities should be designed based on specifications and requirements of fire-fighting equipment. This may be a challenge as different types of fi re-fighting equipment are contributed to Nepal.

Relocate firehouses to other locations for better safety

Creating new fire stations in existing buildings in new locations seem to be in the works in Kathmandu Municipality. Firehouse locations must be guided by many factors such as response time, equipment types, community needs, infrastructure availability, and many other factors (the criteria for choosing a fi re house site is a matter for another discussion). However, if these new fi re-houses are to be housed in existing facilities, such as the old trolley bus station at Baneshwor, the seismic venerability assessment of existing buildings is imperative and must be made a priority before fi re-fi ghting equipment and personnel are located in existing buildings in new sites.

The option to demolish existing fire stations and rebuild new structures on original sites will be an appropriate one only if research/ study determines that the site is the best one for a fi rehouse to serve the needs of the community.

Retrofit existing firehouses if all else fails

The retrofitting of existing unreinforced masonry buildings to resist seismic resistance is possible, but not recommended. Such a decision should only be made after fully evaluating the structural, non-structural fi re life safety of the existing building. Firehouses are essential facilities. This may not be the preferred way to go unless other factors govern.

The fire-fighting facility at Tribhuvan International Airport is primarily responsible for meeting the emergency needs of an airport. Other equipment and facilities at the disposal of the Nepal Army are not within public view. Commenting on them would be inappropriate at this time. The seismic resistance and fi re resistance capabilities of any such assets however must be evaluated to meet current needs and situations.


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