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The hazards of being a fireman

An officer of Delhi fire service, who has been in this profession for more than a decade, talks about how safety of firemen in our country is not given priority

Firstly, the fire department is not involved in town planning. And this poses serious problems. When the fire service is responding to a call, they have no prior knowledge about the area or building. Also, whether those buildings are functioning as per rules or not.
When we set out from the fire station, we know nothing about the hazards of that —occupancy, residential, commercial or industrial.

Suppose there is a shoe factory, what are the nature of chemicals used there — Are they inflammable? Does the building have adequate protection or not? How much does the company know about the product they are using? All manufacturing units, be it a small one or a larger one, use LPG or other fuels. Does the unit store them as per norms or are they stored haphazardly? Are safety precautions taken or not to handle these? These things only the factory people are aware of.

When the fire department reaches there, the building is already ablaze. How will a fireman know what sort of chemicals are present there? Which is kept where or how safe those are? Which area is more of a threat, what is the work process of that building? All this information should be intimated to the fire department. But it is not being done.

Protective clothing

In India, the clothing provided for firefighting is very unsafe. For example, the protective suits which are given to the firemen, they never wear because they are too suffocating. It is already too hot inside the blaze. Thus, no fireman can respond by wearing that suit. It is tough even to keep our normal clothes on due to the extreme heat, let alone the three-layered suit. The fireman would be dehydrated. This is an aspect that is neglected by the fire professionals only. If such protective clothing has been made to enter a fire-ridden area, then it should have been made keeping in mind these aspects.

Firefighting equipment

In foreign countries, whether there’s less smoke or more smoke, the firemen are always made to wear breathing apparatus. But here in India, these breathing apparatuses are so heavy that no firemen can wear them during firefighting. On the other hand, when we tried carbon composite lightweight breathing apparatus it proved unequal to the task in practical ground operations. We had five to six such accidents during operating the apparatus. Thus, we had to discontinue using it. And then we were back using the heavy equipment. These unsafe practices and equipments are imported from outside, they are not even developed in India. Also, the one-layer primary overall, as per norms, should be fire retardant. But in India, fire retardant clothing is not being supplied. And even if it is supplied sometimes, it is of really bad quality.

Government’s inefficiency

There’s a lacuna on the part of the government. We need to buy fire equipment for emergency responses. But whenever the fire department sends these requirements, the secretariat or the government will say, ’why don’t you procure it from GeM (Government e-Marketplace)?’.

All emergency services should be provided with the best. They should get the best materials, irrespective of the prices. There shouldn’t be a rule for us that compel us to select the items which costs the lowest. Specially because it is for our safety. It is not a luxury, but a need.

We, the emergency services, should be made to procure the best. But the finance department asks hundreds of questions whenever we send our requirements. They (the finance department) are not dealing with the emergency, we are. And thus, we should be provided the suitable items without any compromise. In this environment, how can a fireman be safe?

Negligence & corruption

The government doesn’t care if a fireman loses his life. The govt is not worried at all. Post death of a fireman also, what is being awarded to the family of the deceased? Nothing! Suppose if a fireman dies fighting in a fire operation, the government gives nothing to the family.

In foreign countries, it is mandatory to have an insurance plan for the firemen or those in emergency services. But that’s not the case in our country. Till today, after being for 12 years in the service, I haven’t got any corporate insurance plan. It’s saddening and deeply disturbing. If we had our own corporate insurance plan, it would have done justice to our coverage. But nobody is bothered. Who will fight for our rights? ‘Let them die, there’s too much population’, that’s what the government’s mentality must be.
A few days back, there was a fire in a building where a highly-concentrated compound was present. It was stored on the top floor, which was ablaze. During that operation, two of us sustained chemical burns. I am undergoing treatment for that. Still, these were minor injuries.

But what if the injuries were severe? Then my wife would be compelled to loan money from someone or the other to pay the hospital bills for my treatment. This is how poor the policies are. Immediate financial help is not provided. Suppose I am bedridden, my wife has no idea about the process of the department, so what will she do? She will have no option but to beg for help from others.
A fireman should work without any worries? His own safety should be taken care of. Uniform, equipment, coverage, support — nothing is precise. The government’s faulty working system is responsible for it. And, it’s also the fault of the individuals who are involved in fire-fighting operations to some extent. But mostly it is the lacuna in the part of the government. I haven’t been able to buy proper fire-fighting boots also for myself in all these years.

Negligence, corruption, over-population – all these are responsible for such terrible conditions. Protective equipment, rescue tools — all these are compromised. And actually, they are comprising with the lives of the personnel. Also, without the participation of society as a whole, the positive changes cannot be made. One should understand the value of a person’s life. Government, the personnel themselves and society — they all should do their bit to ensure the safety of us, the fire fighters.

— As told to Shruti Das