One need to know what refuge area is. In a layman’s language, it is a safety area provided in a high rise building. As the name suggests, it is an area specifically demarked in any commercial or residential building where people can take shelter in case of an emergency. At times, the rescue forces failed to fight emergencies related to fire with a number of cases in the past. Not only do the fire fighting personal had a hard time reaching the central location of the fire in case of a high floor, it also put lives of residents especially children and elderly at grave risk.

It is dreadful fact that Chief Fire Officer, Fire Brigade Department, Mumbai has declared over 500 high rise buildings in the city as violators of safety norms where the mandatory refuge floors are either missing or locked. As a rule, the door to the refuge area should never be locked as also the space must be easily accessible in an emergency. The builders are required to clearly demark the refuge area with a door and sign board clearly mentioning such area as refuge area. The sign must be painted in luminous paint. Any lifts or staircases should not open in the refuge areas.

In over 60 per cent of the buildings the refuge areas are either being used for parties or for community cooking. Some have opened gymnasiums and health clubs while others are using it as storage or recreation areas. The worst use of the refuge area is to throw garbage in.

It was also found that the builders conveniently converted the refuge area into flats and sold them at very lucrative prices. Another building in one of the central suburbs was found guilty of an offence that the entire building has no refuge area whatsoever.

Numerous builders and developers were found guilty of demarking a large chunk of area under refuge areas to get clearance and later sold them at lucrative prices to various residents for their personal use. With an increase in the number of cases of misuse of refuge areas, the Government redrafted the basic guidelines for refuge areas in accordance with the modified Development Control Rules known as DCR introducing stringent provisions for fire-fighting and curb misuse of these areas by developers by manipulating and misusing certain portions of their towers.

The State Urban Development Department issued the notification that in case the height of the building in more than 30 meters, the first refuge area must be located at 24 meter mark or the 1st habitable floor which is higher. After the first refuge area, every 7th subsequent floor must have the same refuge area in the building.

As per the prevalent rule, the refuge area is restricted to a maximum of 4% of the habitable floor area it serves. The calculation of the refuge area is considered free of FSI. If however the refuge area exceeds the limit of 4%, then the refuge area so exceeded will be calculated under FSI which is the ratio of permissible built up area compared to the total size of the plot.

For buildings having a height of more than 70 meters or 24 floors, the law has introduced a provision for an alternate refuge area. The alternate refuge area can be provided as reinforced cement concrete cantilever projections at the every alternate mid-landing level of staircase. The minimum width for such alternate refuge areas has been fixed at 3 meters and minimum area to be covered is limited at 10 sq. meters for residential buildings and 15 square meters for the commercial buildings.

It is interesting to know that in the past, the Municipal Commissioners were extremely enthusiastic (!!!!!!) to sanction entire floors as refuge areas which the builders then misused the same for commercial gain. In one landmark residential tower near Worli Naka, one of the then Municipal Commissioners sanctioned a refuge area of 550 sq. ft outside every apartment!!!!!!!

Under the prevalent law, in high rise buildings up to 30 meters height, the terrace floor of the building is treated as the refuge area. A fire check floor in a building having height of more than 70 meters is mandatory. It will cover an entire floor at every 70 meters level.

The refuge area is not only used to rescue the resident members but also to struggle with fire hazards. Hence, the residents must be aware of importance of this life saving provision and be careful not to allow any misuse of the same.