Nepali Times
It's an emergency


MOTLEY CREW: The Kathmandu fire brigade team now includes men from the APF

Four fire engines, no water, a team of 35 under-equipped men,only less than half of whom are trained firefighters?that is how prepared this city of 2.5 million is for a major fire.

Less reassuring still is that the most modern engine is 25 years old, and there are vintages from the Rana era. Most of the fire trucks are grounded due to poor maintenance, there is not enough water, and there aren't enough water tankers when there is a fire.

Bijay Singh Lama of Juddha Fire Brigade says, "The fire-fighting system is far from what it should be to effectively address the needs of the city." It is a gross understatement. Lama says the lack of preparedness is worrying and there is just no awareness at the policy-level to be prepared for fire disasters.

Fire fighters try to control a fire outbreak at a house in Ason.
Juddha Fire Brigade was established in 1935 with one fire engine and 15 firemen trained by the British after the devastating 1934 earthquake.

Kathmandu's fire brigade currently has two 1976 model Moritas with a capacity of 4,000 litres and a ladder truck. The fire brigade in Patan and Bhaktapur have a 1976 model German Magirus Deutz each with a 2,400 litre capacity. The entire city of Bhaktapur just has one Magrius Deutz. Most of these were added after Singha Darbar was destroyed in a fire in 1973, there have been no upgrades since.

The government provides a mere Rs 200,000 for fuel and maintenance of the gas-guzzling vehicles that struggle to even start. "The amount is hardly enough to repair the huge age-worn engines of the fire-trucks," says Kewal Chapagain of the Firefighters Volunteer Association of Nepal, which is pushing for an urgent upgrade. "It's a miracle these engines are running at all."

Fire engines make their way through a single lane road.
But the fire engines' condition is not the only the problem. No new firefighters have been recruited in the last 15 years. When manpower went down to just eight firefighters in the Kathmandu Fire Brigade last August, additional strength was called in from the Armed Police Force (APF).

The training given to the initial batch of firemen was the first and the last ever conducted," says Lama. The firemen now get 'on-the-job' training?meaning they train when there is a real fire.

The ministry gets training offers from foreign countries, but these have turned into free vacations for ministry officials. Little attention has been given to the safety of the firemen, who risk their lives every time someone dials 101.

"There is no insurance, no fire-proof clothing, no equipment" says Basudeb Hengarju, Kathmandu's Chief Fire Commander. The firefighters use hand- me -down helmets and gear from a US fire brigade. The jackets don't fit, the boots are too big, but it is better than nothing. Recently, one of the APFs had a narrow escape when he received an electric shock that knocked him unconscious while fighting a fire.

Then there is the shortage of water. The brigade's 10,000-litre water storage tank has been empty for years, so Mahankal, up Chabahil, has become the new supply station. "There are times when we have to rush to Mahankal to get water and then rush to the site of the fire, wasting valuable time," says Hengarju. The yellow fire hydrants on the road are useless, the Water Supply Corporation has long cut its supply.

And when, against all these odds, the fire engines make it to the road, they are often unable to provide timely service because of traffic jams and narrow roads that are not built to pass an eight-foot wide vehicle.

"A fire brigade is necessary not just in case of fire but also for rescue processes in case of disasters like earthquake," says Ghulam M Sherani, the program manager of the UN's Disaster Management Program. "We have to develop a standard fire brigade system that is highly equipped to respond to such hazards, especially because of the unplanned urbanisation in Kathmandu"

The fire brigade is in serious need of new fire engines, ambulances, staff training and equipment as well as smaller fire trucks to negotiate Kathmandu's narrow alleys.

(11 JAN 2013 - 17 JAN 2013)