Burning issues with the fire brigade
By Ayesha Javed
LAHORE: Most Lahoris would be at a loss for words when asked which number they would dial in case of a fire.
The inaccessibility of the fire brigade in Lahore is just the first of The Central Fire Station’s problems. The station is located in Town Hall and is in as miserable a condition as can be, considering the inept functioning of the fire brigade. The chairs and tables are falling to pieces, the single telephone is perpetually engaged and there is no sign of any computers.
Once the topic of inadequate facilities available to the fire department was broached, fire officers were more than willing to hold court as long as their names weren’t mentioned. The fire officer stationed at the Town Hall casually admitted that Lahore’s fire department needed drastic overhauling but blamed the devolution plan for most of its problems.
“Before the devolution plan, the area allotted to us extended from Thokar Niaz Baig to General Hospital and from Jallo Park to Shahdara,” he said. “After devolution, this area has been extended by about 50 km in every direction, which puts Manga Mandi and Raiwind under our jurisdiction as well.
“The area allotted to us has been increased, but the number of fire stations has remained thirteen,” he said, going on to explain that the inadequate number of stations was not the only factor responsible for the poor performance of the fire brigade. “We have a total of 15 vehicles and 240 firemen in Lahore, ridiculously small figures considering the size and dimensions of the city,” he said. “The current vehicles were purchased in 1985 and are in such poor condition that they are in and out of workshops constantly.”
When asked why women couldn’t be enrolled to make up for the lack of firemen, the fireman made it clear that the law did not allow that. Have there been any women wanting to enrol?. A smile, a shake of the head and a candid reply was all that the fireman had to offer: “Women in our country are not interested in such dangerous professions.” Asked how effectively fires had been contained in the past, Al-Fatah, the decade old departmental store that recently burnt to the ground, came up. The fire officer explained that the fire department lacked the equipment to control fires more than 30 feet above the ground. “We reached the departmental store in the shortest possible time and managed to control the fire on the first four floors,” explained another fire official. “But the fifth floor, where all the oil and oil products were stocked, was too high up for us.”
Fortunately, major fires like the one at Al-Fatah are rare. Although minor fires range from 700 – 900 a year, in the last seven years, there have been only four major fires: a huge fire at the dry port situated in Mughalpura in 1997, a fire at the NLC depot in 1999, a fire at Pace in 1998 and the recent blaze at Al-Fatah.
While the fire officer felt that better fire control would definitely result from an increase in the number of fire stations by least another 10, he also pointed out the need for better awareness “Most people in the city don’t know what number to dial in case of an emergency and end up dialling the central fire station number, which, is almost always engaged,” said the fire officer. “What they should be doing is calling up their district fire station.”
However, each area in Lahore has its own number and getting them was not easy, he said. The officer also said crank calls to the fire brigade were not uncommon. “Calling up the fire brigade is actually entertainment for these people. They don’t realise that they are keeping our lines engaged and putting other people’s lives in danger,” said the fire officer. “Now we have started a system of noting down numbers and calling them back before dispatching our vehicles.”
Any possibility of installing an automatic tracking down system? “Not for a long, long time,” said the officer. “We just don’t have the kind of budget needed for such technology.” The fire officers said there were some simple things the public could do that would prevent fires. “Smoke detectors are extremely helpful in guiding fire stations and ensuring a rapid response from our side,” explained the officer. “One does come across smoke detectors in industrial areas and near factories but in residential areas, they are completely missing.”
He said common causes of fires included carelessness, such as forgetting to put out a cigarette or deep-frying food near a child; faulty electrical wiring; industrial accidents; and accidents with pressure cookers.