14-20 July 2017 #867

The Road to a Safer Kathmandu

A unique project to augment Nepal’s fire-fighting capacity, while boosting tourism
Kate Ryan

FIRE FIGHTERS: Actors Sunil Thapa and Michael Imperioli with SP Police Superintendent Bipin Regmi, Kathmandu Fire Chief Kishor Kumar Bhattarai and Michael Kobold of Soarway Foundation at Boudha on Monday. They were making a plan to drive 10 fire engines to Kathmandu in November.

Fire Brigade Chief Kishor Kumar Bhattarai drives cautiously through the narrow streets of Basantapur that wear the scars of the 2015 earthquake. This donated Japanese fire truck has been in need of a spare part for seven years, and he does not expect a replacement any time soon.

“In order to serve the Valley, I need at least 50 trucks,” says Bhattarai. “Right now, we have five.”

This November, the beleaguered fire brigade will triple its fleet with the help of 75 Hollywood actors, Nepali celebrities, political leaders, army generals and philanthropists from around the world. The international team will drive 10 American firefighting vehicles from Birganj to Kathmandu.

The expedition is seven years in the making for Michael Kobold, the German watchmaker-mountaineer-philanthropist behind the effort. After personal and international setbacks, the death of a friend and a border blockade, Kobold has all the permits and a target date.

In the last month alone there have been two major fires in the valley: the Yeti Carpet Factory in Bhaktapur and a fire in Gokarna in which 52 dairy cows perished.

Gas leaks and electrical shortages are the two primary causes of fires in the Valley, says Bhattarai. Fires occur more frequently after an earthquake, because pipes and electric wiring systems are damaged. While Kathmandu is still rebuilding, fire risk is high and evacuation routes are unreliable.

Kathmandu’s population of 2.5 million requires 62 fire engines and 3,000 firefighters, but there are only 50 firefighters serving the Valley with 5 antiquated trucks. Their ladders only extend 10 storeys, putting most of Kathmandu’s new high-rises beyond their reach.

And while the dispatch time is less than two minutes, response time is never a guarantee. The trucks have no GPS system, and when they get lost Bhattarai says he sticks his head out the window and uses his nose.

Kathmandu needs emergency resources, but it also needs tourists. Kobold hopes the celebrities driving the trucks will raise Nepal’s profile, attract tourists with deeper pockets, boost the economy and create jobs that will discourage young Nepalis from heading abroad for work.

“We want people to know Nepal is open for business,” Kobold said. “It’s safe, beautiful and breathtaking.”

Kobold originally partnered with former US Ambassador to Nepal Scott Delisi and his close friend, actor James Gandolfini, on the project. When Gandolfini died of a heart attack in 2013, Kobold put his passion project on hold for a year and a half. In 2015, he founded the Soarway Foundation with Delisi to focus on disaster preparedness in Nepal – and three weeks later the earthquake struck, killing nearly 9,000 people.

Kobold threw himself into Soarway, setting everything else, including his watch business, to the side. “You can find ways to make customers happy,” he said. “You can’t delay helping Nepal.”

Celebrity friends like actor Malcolm McDowell and explorer Sir Ranulph Fiennes called Kobold to volunteer for the fire truck expedition. But even as the logistics fell into place, politics took a turn for the worse. India’s blockade came five months after the earthquake and lasted another five. It took Kobold 21 months of daily meetings to gain the necessary permits for the vehicles.

Barring further complications, six fire engines, one ladder truck, one command vehicle and two Volvo track steers will arrive in Kathmandu this autumn to be handed over to the municipality. Soarway is also designing a $2-million fire station for the capital.

Soarway will fly engineers to Kathmandu every six months for the next five years to inspect and service the donated vehicles, provide spare parts and train local mechanics. It will also bring firefighters and US Navy SEALs to train Nepalis. As of now, Bhattarai is the only professionally trained Nepali firefighter in the valley; his other colleagues simply learn on the job.

Kobold says this is a pilot project, and the impact of the first 10 vehicles will determine whether more donors join the effort to improve Nepal’s firefighting capacity.

“Nepal spells adventure,” says Kobold, but sometimes adventure means danger. He hopes investment in emergency training and infrastructure will change that.

Read also:

Fire alarm, Salil Subedi and Hemlata Rai

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