If a major fire breaks out in your neighbourhood the thing to do is dial 101, but don't be too sure that the firefighters will rush over. Provided they turn up at all, for it is as likely the firemen would be busy repairing their tenders, some of which are more than 60 years old. And if there are more than four big fires simultaneously in Kathmandu, the most anyone can do is sit back and watch the flames, as fire engines run here and there with empty water tanks. "Only after something disastrous will the government come up with anything new. At the moment we can do nothing but hope nothing like that happens," says one fireman in Kathmandu.
If you want to know what he is cribbing about, take a stroll around the 63-year-old Juddha Barun Yantrashala at New Road or the fire brigades offices in Lalitpur or Bhaktapur. Even a brief chat with firefighters will tell you how careless authorities have been about something like firefighting. And we are not even talking of the safety of these daring workers or how they have been discriminated against over the years.
There are 11 fire engines operational in the Valley-one in Lalitpur, two each with the Nepal Police and the Pashupati Area Development Fund (PADF) and three each with the Judda Barun Yantrashala in Kathmandu and Bhaktapur. PADF has been trying to give its two Japanese fire engines (one without a tank) to the government, but the government has so refrained from taking up the offer. Explains Min Bahadur Poudel, chief of the Disaster Relief Section at the Ministry of Home Affairs: "We want to hand over all the existing fire brigades to the local development authorities (municipalities). That's why we haven't done anything."
There is also an acute shortage of firefighters. Numbers have fallen drastically in a few years. The Kathmandu fire brigade has 30 firemen to manage four trucks (one with a ladder). Each truck requires 10 firefighters under normal circumstances. Poudel of the Home Ministry doesn't seem bothered. "They are already without work. There are no fires in the Valley. They can manage with what they have," he says.
Firemen at Bhaktapur told us that they have to respond to an average of 20 fire incidents every month. Their engines are petrol-guzzlers, but the government remains totally oblivious to their problem. The government gives them a grossly inadequate Rs 100,000 each year for fuel and maintenance of machines. "We have to personally beg petrol pumps to provide fuel on credit," says a fireman. (None of them wanted to be named since a colleague of theirs was fired for speaking out openly to a newspaper.) "We get the same amount that was budgeted in 1994," he moans.
No roads, no water
The growing number of houses built without regard to fire safety makes the scenario all the scarier. Add to that the fact that 50 percent of the Valley's 1,260 km of road passes through high-density areas with narrow alleys and lanes. Firemen say a road must be at least 8ft wide for the fire trucks to manoeuvre. The water hose is 75m long and water can be directed a further 70 feet at full throttle. "It's just impossible to put out fires in the inner city," says a Kathmandu fireman. The Valley desperately needs portable fire engines-smaller trucks carrying 1000 litres of water that can go anywhere, he says.
Then there is the water problem itself. All three fire brigades are perennially short of water. The 10,000-litre water storage tank at the New Road fire brigade is completely dry, and has been so for three years. In Patan, every other day a fire engine goes out to collect drinking water for its staff. "We had a 3,600-litre tank built but it leaks. We've asked for it to be repaired several times. We still have to collect water from Bode and Mahankal," the fire brigade says. And during the dry season, they are often ordered to supply drinking water to the residences of Ministers and other government officials.
Fire hydrants can been seen at odd intervals along some Kathmandu streets, but are useless for the firemen. According to the Nepal Water Supply Corporation, in 1997, there were 235 hydrants, 106 in Lalitpur and 129 in Kathmandu. But most of them are either out of order or blocked. Even if they were to function, it would only be at specific times since they are all connected to the water supply lines and even then the flow is feeble. "Fire hydrants are not our priority at the moment. We are more focused on public water supply distribution," says Noor Kumar Tamrakar, acting Deputy General Manager of the Corporation.
Firemen say they sometimes fear the worst. Says one: "We're often harassed when tackling fires. If there's a big blaze, we'll probably be lynched if we aren't able to put it out."
They continue to risk their lives only out of sheer "dharma", as one of them puts it. None of the three government-run fire brigades in the Valley provide fireproof jackets to firemen, let alone oxygen masks, cylinders and other equipment. Their 'latest' acquisition is the German-made Magirus Deutz fire tenders which all three brigades bought in 1976. The only 'hi-tech' fire engines, i.e. with foam to combat blazes, are at the Tribhuvan International Airport.
Firemen are increasingly upset about government indifference to their welfare. There have been no promotions since 1981, and no new recruitment since 1991. Patan's fire brigade has been without commanders since July 2000. And, no, they're not covered by any insurance policy. "You can imagine the risk to the poor sipahis," says a fireman.
"We are constantly at risk saving other people's lives," says another from Patan, recalling the death of a colleague who inhaled toxic fumes while rescuing a person from a well.
"We do feel for them, regarding issues like insurance, training and overtime allowance. But at the moment the government does not have any budget for that. It will take some time," says Poudel of the Home Ministry, and leaves it at that.
Retiring employees have a hard time getting their pension books from the Nijamati Karmachari Kitab Khana (the government records office). "We are stuck with work that gives us neither professional nor personal satisfaction," says one who has been a sipahi for 19 years.
The Home Ministry is responsible for the fire brigades in Kathmandu, Lalitpur and Bhaktapur, but firemen aren't too sure who is in charge. They've been to the Public Service Commission, the Commission for the Investigation of Abuse of Authority, the Local Development Ministry and even the Special Police, to pour out their woes, but to no avail. The firemen are hired under provisions similar to the armed forces, but are denied corresponding facilities. The Superintendent must be a graduate with basic training in firefighting. "But here the khardar [a lowly functionary] of the ministry is assigned to the post. He knows nothing about firefighting," says a fireman from Kathmandu.
Neither is there any training for new recruits either. Only the first batch of firefighters were given formal training when the Juddha Barun Yantrashala was established back in 1938. "We learn the skills from our seniors," they say.
"The Home Ministry does receive scholarship and training offers from friendly countries every year. But since none of our firemen meet the criteria set by trainers, we are unable to send anyone," says Poudel. Firemen, however, claim that ministry officials have been going on these training programmes.
If that was not enough they are also called upon by the police during riots to shoot water. According to the firefighters, the cops have not used their water cannons even once. "We are the unlucky ones, left to face the mobs. We are neither armed nor protected. The police exploit us. They hide behind our trucks and order us to move ahead. Why don't they use their cannon instead?" asked one fire fighter.
Recently, they were called upon to extinguish a rumoured fire at the Gopi Krishna Cinema during the recent riots. Eyewitnesses say that despite their hesitation, firemen were forced by police to move ahead when suddenly a stone crashed through the windscreen and injured the commander badly. An eyewitness said: "He was taken to the army hospital, the wound sutured and that was it. He was neither compensated nor given any further medical treatment."
"This kind of treatment hurts us a lot," says the commander, who remained in bed on a liquid diet for a week, paying for the medication out of his own pocket.
There is now another worry for the firemen: the government decision to rid the Valley of vehicles more than 20 years old. Says a veteran fireman: "I wonder what the big bosses are planning to do with our fire engines that are more than 50 years old."
Operational Fire Engines with Juddha Barun Yantrashala
Model: 1976, Capacity: 4,000 litre
Magirus Deutz, German
Model: 1976, Capacity: 2,400 litre
(Kathmandu-1, Patan-1, Bhaktapur-1)
Model:1973, Capacity: 1500 litre
Model: 1945, Capacity 1,200 litre