What can fire tragedies teach project managers?

Today evening, we lost at least 9 innocent lives in the fire at Carlton Towers, Bangalore, and many more are still battling for life. All these were office-goers who worked an honest living and were part of the burgeoning IT industry. While details will be out in next few days, preliminary reports, live tweets from some of the people stuck in the building, and eye witnesse accounts all suggest that these most of these lives could have been saved. I write this blog post to offer my tribute to those lives that we lost, and want to share my anguish by means of lessons that we project management can (and must) learn and hopefully avoid such tragidies in everyday project, and in homes and workplaces where we work and our families live.

Emergencies can strike anytime

This was otherwise a perfectly normal day – as normal as it gets. No rain, no thunderstorm, not really hot day, no major loadshedding. We don’t know whether it was a short-circuit (reports at this hour do suggest that short-circuit was the most probably culprit), or some other cause, but the circumstantial evidence suggests that there was nothing that could perhaps be blamed on an ‘external’ factor. I am reminded of the famous lines from Fred Brooks timeless classic, The Mythical Man-month, that it is ‘termites’ more often than the ‘tornadoes’ that hit the project. Most often, our carelessness and neglect sustained over time leads to breeding grounds for such termites and results into such grave catastrophes. It is important to ensure that regular health checks are part of any infrastructure, project or a system, for nothing is big enough to escape an emergency, even if its probability of happening might be miniscule.

Emergencies can strike anyone

This was a facility in a busy residential locality, and houses some restaurants. There is nothing around the building that could raise its threat level from fire due to its location, or due to its inhabitants, or nature of its business (it has mostly IT offices on upper floors). There was no real hazardous business carried on inside the offices. Still it met the fate that it met. Titanic sunk because its designers and crew thought it could never sink. Probably, someone in Carlton Towers felt the building was safe and hence there was no need for periodic checks and other fire-safety measures. However, as history forces unpleasent and unforgettable experiences down our unwilling throats, we somehow manage to neglect them in good times. It’s almost like the eventual fallacy of the eternal youth – only when we are past the so-called ‘eternal’ youth that we realize the true and bitter facts of life. Likewise, no project manager must ever think that he has fortified his project enough to be immune from any acts of man or god!

Fire Drills prepare us for dealing with emergencies

At this point, we don’t know if regular fire drills were conducted or not, but initial reports suggest that many (if not all) fire extinguishers did not work. It is also very likely that in panic, people were not able to figure out how to operate fire extinguishers. Also, initial reports suggest that some fire exits were blocked. If periodic fire drills were conducted, most of these issues would have been identified and hopefully rectified on a routine basis. Just now, as I watch news, I came to know to my shock and horror that there was no fire exit beyond 7th floor – and the building has 10 floors! How can we expect hundreds of officegoers to maintain calm and manage an emergency where they are stuck on 4th or 5th floors of a building on fire when there is no way they can defend themselves, no way they can fight the fire. I am always reminded of the golden mantra of armies – the more you sweat in peace, the less you bleed in war! While the loss of lives is condemnable and an irrepairable loss to their loved ones, the people whose negligence led to this tragedy must be held accountable. Would they be able to sit down with their families for a dinner tonight without their guilt asking them some simple but difficult questions that they know they can’t ever answer? In projects too, we must understand the true nature of the beast, and create adequate planning to simulate all possible trajectories. While plans can, and will, change in real-life, the real value is in the process of planning and the more one goes through the script, the more one discovers hidden problems languishing in the dark alleys and breeding in difficult to reach nooks and corners. A project that runs without script might look cool, but when the crisis hits (as it eventually must!) the team members have no clue how to respond.

Tweeple created alternate channels of communication

People like @jackerhack were able to reach out to the outside world by their tweets. While I don’t know if there were more, but thanks to them, we were able to get a heads up that might have probably saved some time and lives (at least I do think). Similarly, in projects, formal communication mechanisms often are inadequate, late and too rigid to be of any real use. Informal communication, especially the distressful one coming from the trenches, is perhaps the most important one that most managers tune out due to several reasons, most of then unreasonable. It is important to create back channels of informal communication where the real heartbeat and pulse rate of a project and the team could be felt without getting adulturated and sugarcoated, and available after a week in the next project report.


Unfortunately, this was not the last of avoidable tragedies. We create systems and infrastructure assuming there will never be a mayday, and live in a soft fort made of dry sand, blissfully unaware that forces of neglect are slowly and softly chipping away at our sand fort. If we take the ‘all is well’ for granted and wrongly assume it to be a result of our meticulous planning and flawless execution, we might only be burying our head and hiding ourselves a little deeper in the sand like the ostrich. A project manager must learn invaluable lessons from such unfortunate tragedies and put them into practice. Hopefully, they will avert a bigger disaster. If not that, at least that would be a small tribute to the tragic loss of those innocent lives.

6 thoughts on “What can fire tragedies teach project managers?

  1. Pingback: project management history | PROJECT MANAGEMENT

  2. Anuj

    Its only ironical that smart Project Managers tend to learn from these tragedies more/faster than the concerned people at helm of such unsafe buildings. Nevertheless, good learnings here.

  3. MohaN, exe PGDM..SJCBA

    In most of the companies, the emergency exit doors are locked…..

    Not sure who will wait and open the doors in a situation like this….

    A mere presence of emergency exits turn out to be a fallacy…

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