Hanging out in shopping malls is a favourite pastime of youngsters these days as, particularly in large concerns, amenities to encourage this trend are widely emplaced and, come evening and weekend, this press of teenagers expands to include families with children in tow who head straight for games, rides and snack bars where music blasts out and air conditioning is part and parcel of the deal. Actual shopping is certainly not on everyone's agenda, but sales must be sufficient as the high-priced outlets lining each and every storey of these huge malls appear to tick over quite profitably, despite the runaway inflation that is, supposedly, bringing the middle classes to their knees. Some, not all of these 'fun filled' places boast a semblance of security measures at their entrances where laid-back guards may, or may not, make a cursory check of ladies handbags and teenagers backpacks, seemingly afraid of performing their designated task with any degree of efficiency in case the wife, sons or daughters of a man in 'high' position takes umbrage. On the surface all is hunky-dory, yet a closer look at popular malls throughout the country, places where literally thousands of people congregate during 'prime time', reveals that the majority of them are nothing more than badly designed death traps. The biggest possible hazard in these multi-storied places and let's face it, one can included thousands of office blocks, apartment buildings, even some hospitals and definitely many schools, colleges and universities in this survey, is, aside from the ever present threat of suicide bombers, that of one of the most destructive elements known to man...fire. A negligible number of such buildings have trained fire-fighters on their staff; fire alarm systems are often faulty and fire drills, if held at all, are most certainly not undertaken when the building is full of potential customers as they would, most likely, object to the intrusion on their time and peace of mind Fire extinguishers, if present at all, are rarely in the requisite number and rarely, if ever, given a professional annual service as required to keep them in proper working order; sand buckets are usually empty and used as makeshift rubbish bins; automatic sprinkler systems are neither serviced, nor checked for operational efficiency, and the requisite water tanks to fuel them may well be empty. Serviceable fire doors, smoke alarms, fire escapes and other facilities associated with easing an emergency situation caused if an inferno breaks out are likewise either totally absent or way below the necessary standard to safeguard the lives of those working in such buildings or those visiting for whatever purpose takes them there. As for first aid stations and medical supplies, unless there happens to be pharmacy in the buildi-ng...forget it To make matters worse, if this is possible, ground floor stores around the outer perimeter of the multi-storey constructions, along with basement areas too, overflow, as a matter of course, on to pavements and often completely take over access routes plus, it is far from unknown for 'volatile' businesses such as restaurants and bakeries to operate illegal cooking areas in basement locations where electrical wiring circuits, usually resembling spaghetti-junction, are totally exposed and therefore highly vulnerable to accidental short circuits. It isn't very long ago at all that such a bakery in the basement of a commercial block in Islamabad went up in flames with a number of people loosing their lives, as a direct result of a total lack of fire fighting equipment and escape routes. What is it that makes the owners or operators of such places overlook the safety of the very people they depend on to make a profit? Don't they feel the slightest bit responsible for the lives of others? Don't they care that if and when an inferno erupts innocents will die? The answer to all of these questions is, quite obviously and shamefully, a very loud 'No'. With profit their only god and bribery their escape route, owners and operators care only for their personal well being. Surely, however, the public at large have seen enough disaster movies, this genre being incredibly popular for macabre reasons, to have more than just an inkling of what could well happen if one of these places suddenly goes up in smoke and worse still, if they or their children happen to be in it at the time so why do we, collectively, let them get away with it? The relative laws do, as is often the case, exist but are rarely implemented let alone enforced for the simple reason that, as is all too common in Pakistan, cash greasing the right palm ensures that the 'authorities' turn the other cheek to such 'misdemeanours' and even if the unspeakable happens and a shopping complex, a mall, an office block or whatever does go up in smoke killing countless numbers of innocent people and injuring or maiming many more, the owner or operator knows full well that he or she is unlikely to face the rap, as there are loopholes galore through which to make a timely escape. It's way past time that the law of the land is transparently enforced. The writer is a Murree-based freelance columnist.