JAN o4, 2012 Kathmandu – A dream to be a fighter ended in a real life fighter as saving thousands of lives in daily basis being a firefighter. As Nepal has very few fire brigedes to run and few people to work on.
A year after his failed attempt to join the Nepal Army (NA) in 1986, Dhurba Raj Giri of Sindhupalchowk, who was 22 then, decided to try his luck as a firefighter under the fire brigade team run by the NA. Fortunately, he was among 52 firefighters recruited to serve in the Juddha Fire Brigade, or Juddha Barun Yantra (JFB)—the first fire brigade of the country.
“My father was an armyman himself, and wanted me to follow in his footsteps. I’d seen him in his uniform countless times, and wanted to wear it,” he intones. Although his dream of joining the Army never came true, Giri got a chance to wear the uniform he’d seen his father in, getting to work under the NA team in 1987. Right after he was recruited, he had to undergo the basic firefighting training where he learned about types of fire—electric and others—and ways to control damage.
Before he joined Juddha Barun Yantra, Giri was a seventh grader. “I dropped out of school and became a firefighter. It was one of the most fulfilling jobs I could’ve imagined doing and save lives of people.”
In the last 24 years, Giri has been part of dozens of fire-related rescue operations within the Valley, and some of these incidents have made indelible marks on his memory. One of the most dreadful cases, he says, happened over 10 years ago. Giri and his team were informed that there was a fire inside the Tribhuvan International Airport (TIA). “Teams of firefighters from Kathmandu, Bhaktapur and Lalitpur had been called in, but the fire was spreading fast,” he says.
“Seeing the raging fire, I thought that 10 or 12 years of experience I had in this field would never be enough for me to put out the fire and save myself during the firefighting process.” The inferno even left locals of Sinamangal panic stricken. “It was a terrible sight,” Giri says. Thankfully, two hours later, they put out the flames. “We used liquid foam—a fire-retardant product mixed with water.”
For Giri, the TIA fire was probably the worst case he’s seen till date, and it cemented his certitude that he had chosen the right career path. “I had a dream of serving the nation and people the way my father did. Although my wife and children fear for me every time I go on an operation, I’ve never regretted my decision to work as a firefighter.”
Fortunately, Giri says his team hasn’t seen any fatalities, even though the kind of gear that they are provided with is unsafe an inadequate considering the risks they encounter. Firemen, in general, wear jackets, plastic boots and helmets. “Our outfits and equipment need to be modernised to fit the new types of fires that have to fight with,” he says. “If we get killed, we don’t even have life insurance.”
Chhauni Hospital used to provide free medical facilities to firemen in case of injuries until three years ago. “Although we’re said to be part of the Nepal Army, we’re not given the same facilities that infantry military personnel are entitled to,” says Giri.
The length of working hours is also another concern among firefighters, who generally are on 24-hour shifts. “If the siren rings it doesn’t matter what you’re doing. You need to rush to the location and do your duty,” says Badri Karki, 40, a senior constable at JFB. He is a firefighter for the last 22 years.
According to the firemen, there has been a surge in fire-related cases in the Valley in recent years compared to the past two decades. “There has been an increase in minor cases, which can be controlled by the
local residents themselves. Instead of simply turning off the main switch in the case of an electrical fire, people usually panic and flee, leaving the fire to spread,” Karki says.
Despite risks, Giri says, the rewards in terms of the experience and joy of saving a life, are more than enough. “Even though there are many alternative job both in the country and abroad, I wouldn’t discourage my son if he wanted to become a fireman,” he says proudly.
With the onset of the dry season, fire-related accidents are at an all-time high, particularly owing to increasing load-shedding hours, during which chances of electrical fires are high. On average, there are about 360 to 380 fire-related incidents in every dry season, according to Lila Raj Gachha Magar, chief of Juddha Fire Brigade. “Cases are going up in recent times,” he says.
Public awareness of fire-related accidents is said to very low. For instance, people generally call fire brigades even when they see a heap of garbage on fire in their localities instead of trying to put it out themselves. This over-dependence on fire brigades is more common in urban areas. Besides load-shedding, the tendency of storing lubricants inside houses, and carelessness about turning off electrical appliances and keeping away flammable objects along with the difficulty of procuring fire extinguishers are to blame for the rise in fire-related cases.
Meanwhile, JFB is facing shortage of young skilled hands. “We haven’t had new recruits for the last 16 years,” says Gachha Magar. Most of the firefighters working for JFB are in their 40s, though the government directive considers people between 18 and 23 years as the ideal age group for this job. The present human strength at JFB has come down to 29 from 53 firefighters about two decades ago, alarmingly low considering that fire-related incidents have been rising recently.