'People run from fire, we go into it'

Firefighters have to face great risks to their own safety to save others

Within seconds of getting off their fire tenders, the men were on the job. Each man’s role had been assigned on the way. The source of the fire in the Paharganj bakery shop could not be immediately known as the shutter was locked. But the owner had  warned them about half-a-dozen gas cylinders inside.

So the shutter was not forced open. Instead, a hole was drilled into it to spray water. Within moments, the cylinders began to explode one after the other.

“The first blast left me and two of my colleagues deaf for the next one hour. We three were right beside the shutter and spraying water inside,” says fire operator Rajesh Kumar recounting a year-old experience. The three did not budge from there, and coordinated with each other by hand signs through the rest of the operation.

But it is not always that residents warn firemen about the presence of inflammatory items such as gas cylinders or dangerous chemicals inside.

Rajesh’s friend Pradeep tackled a fire in which the shopkeeper did not tell him about a can of diesel lying inside. “Pradeep was trying to enter the house by a ladder. His face was burnt by rising flames from the diesel can. He was flung on to a nearby terrace and is lucky to be still alive,” says Rajesh who is currently deployed at the Connaught Place fire station, and was actively involved in controlling the major blaze at Connaught Place recently.

The lack of cooperation from the public, firemen say, is only one ssue that puts their safety at risk. Firemen complain of the lack of safety gear and modern protective clothing.

“Nurses have face masks and gloves. We have no special equipment which can protect us from dangerous chemicals about which we are often unaware,” said Sunil Dagar, a fireman at Janakpuri fire station.

Firefighters are of course equipped with oxygen masks to brave smoke and poisonous gases inside burning buildings. But those stationed in areas not considered very dangerous are not provided this advanced safety gear.

“We are supposed to continue speaking with each other during the entire operation. Once we do don’t hear someone’s voice for some time, we immediately turn our attention to him,” says Rajesh. Also, they are under constant danger of being electrocuted if the jet of water being sprayed comes in touch with any live electrical wire.

Firemen are required to react quickly in any situation, come up with on-the-spot plans and display exemplary courage.

Some months ago, a CRPF personnel threatening suicide had climbed a pole at New Delhi railway station. “We went to his rescue. Two firemen acting as negotiators instantly came up with ideas to convince him to abandon the suicide plan. They succeeded,” says Sandeep, another fire operator.

Disrupting a suicide bid is only one of several others jobs, apart from extinguishing flames, that firemen are involved in. Rescuing people from collapsed buildings and those trapped in manholes are only some of them.

While roles of firemen are pre-designated, lack of adequate staff at the spur of the moment leaves them with little time to reshuffle roles. So this is mostly done enroute the fire spot.

In every operation, six men – that includes the driver, a station officer and four firefighters – accompany a fire tender. In case of a fire, the blaze level is assessed within moments of reaching the spot and more fire tenders are ordered depending on the situation. Some attempt to enter the affected part of the building, one or more men fix the hose pipes and the driver operates the pump.

“We break open doors and windows to enter. If visibility is very low, we crawl to move ahead. We drench ourselves in water before entering if there are high flames,” says Dagar. The risks involved in these operations can be gauged from the fact that firefighters' clothes mention their blood group along with their names on the chest.

And firefighters don't stop work till the job is done.  Three of fireman Amrit’s colleagues were buried alive under a burning building that collapsed at a timber market in Kirti Nagar in 2005. “We did not stop work for a minute. We mourned the deaths much later,” says Amrit.

In every operation, it is ensured that at least two firemen together go into a danger zone. Comradeship and teamwork are essential for their safety and for success of an operation.

A fireman at Janakpuri fire station was asked if sliding poles, instead of standard staircases, are still used at fire stations to respond to an alarm. Even as he was saying that the practice has been abandoned due to safety concerns arising from the possibility of disgruntled colleagues applying oil on the poles to make them dangerously slippery, his senior Dagar hushed him into silence.

“People run away from a fire but we move towards it. For a successful operation and for our safety, we need to work as a family and not harbour such thoughts,” says Dagar.

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