Prabhat Rahangdale, chief fire officer of the Mumbai Fire Brigade (MFB), was mentally prepared when the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC) asked him in March to take up a mammoth task. Mumbai had just registered its first COVID-19 positive case and the BMC wanted to sanitise the nooks and corners of the city. The MFB has 2,700 personnel; 160 of them were chosen to participate in the sanitisation work. The fire brigade had proved its mettle in the past, rescuing people in calamities like the floods in July 2005 and the terror attacks on November 26, 2008. But it was the first time in its 133-year history (it was formed on April 1, 1887) that it had been roped in for a sanitising mission, and that too on this scale.
The MFB was immediately called in after Mumbai registered its first COVID-19 death on March 23. The patient had been admitted to the P.D. Hinduja Hospital in Mahim. The MFB personnel took control of the hospital premises and sanitised it in one day, allowing it to reopen in a couple of days. That significantly boosted the MFB’s confidence.
A veteran fire-fighter, Rahangdale and his team have lived up to expectations. Till May 2, they had disinfected close to 75,000 public and private premises in a 17,000 km area, covering all the contaminated areas in the city. They used close to 300,000 litres of sodium hypochlorite along with hydrogen peroxide, iso propyl alcohol and the Zoono Z-71 microbe shield for the purpose.
The jawans were split into 32 teams. Equipment included 17 quick response vehicles with high pressure water mist pumps, jumbo water tankers, fire engines, six mist blowing machines, four protector spraying machines with booms, 250 backpack machines and 300 hand pumps. They worked in two shifts, early morning to afternoon and late in the evening, with a control room at the MFB headquarters in Byculla coordinating the progress.
The teams have sanitised 280 hospitals, including the dedicated COVID-19 ones, 45 government offices, 3,327 common areas in the slums, 6,447 home quarantine premises, 7,331 Covid-positive premises, apart from 5,000 public and private toilets. The chemicals and machinery came from industrial houses like the Tatas, Godrej and Gharda Chemicals who used CSR funds for the purpose.
Rahangdale says the job has not been easy, considering the hot and humid air in Mumbai. The highly inflammable isopropyl alcohol is restricted to personal and indoor sanitisation. Sodium hypochlorite is sprayed on the roads and other outdoor surfaces. He has ensured that all fire-fighters wear PPE, maintain hygiene and eat healthy to boost immunity. “All the personnel, their equipment and vehicles are sanitised once they return to the station,” Rahangdale says. “We give them immunity boosters after that.”
A big challenge has been disinfecting the narrow, labyrinthine pathways in the slums. The jawans face a double risk, infections while moving in the affected areas and the health hazards from the constant exposure to the disinfectants. “Even if we get injured dousing a fire, our family members are safe. In the case of COVID-19, if we get infected, the entire family will suffer,” says Rahangdale.
The MFB’s work in the slum pockets of Dharavi, Govandi and Jijamata Nagar have been crucial, considering the dense population and the narrow roads. The fire-fighters had to request residents to make way in some places. In many others, residents came forward to guide them in the narrow lanes. They were welcomed with clapping and cheers. The scene was not too different in Govandi either.
One of the situations that has stayed with the jawans was in upscale Colaba where they went for sanitisation on May 3. The jawans noticed that littering was a big problem. “The people were staring at us,” says a jawan, “I could feel the guilt on their faces.”
Rahangdale believes in leading from the front and is available for the team round-the-clock. When he noticed a jawan feeling uneasy, he immediately sent him for testing. “Fortunately, the test came back negative,” he says.