You will hardly hear any stories about firefighters in Nepal; seldom will you hear little boys and girls say, “I want to be a firefighter”.
What happens when you call 101?
- The call center at Juddha Barun Yantra receives the call.
- Thereafter, when the person on duty confirms the fire, they signal the first group of seven firefighters to leave immediately for help, while the second group of seven firefighters waits on standby.
- The second group is called upon only if the fire is uncontrollable, and requires a bigger team.
What happens if you call 101 from outside the Valley?
- The number will still ring at the call center in Juddha Barun Yantra.
- The person on duty takes the report and asks you to call the concerned brigade, while simultaneously assuring that help is sent through some delegation.
Mann nai runcha (My heart cries),” says Bishwo Bahadur Raut, one of the firefighters in Juddha Barun Yantra, when I ask him, “I know it’s a ridiculous question to ask, but I have to. How do you feel when you cannot save a person from the fire?”
Juddha Barun Yantra was established in 1937 through the initiation of Prime Minister Juddha Shumsher Rana, who wanted to start a fire brigade in Kathmandu Valley after being intrigued by the system in foreign countries he had visited, especially after witnessing the fire emergency system in England.
“I want to build our own fire brigade in Nepal; we need to be well prepared! Fire can run quickly through the house, flames are dangerous.”
For Juddha Shumsher, this was a cherished dream, his preparation for a better disaster-prepared Nepal. The assemblage of the fire brigades in Nepal would be one of his pride achievements. Rarely did fire accidents happen at the time, but even so, Juddha Shumsher managed to bring the first fire engine, Maurice (a fire engine brand from England), home, but the people of Nepal were yet to understand the need of it.
Maurice made its way from India to Bhimphedi, and from there, to Kathmandu. The engine was disassembled and carried by porters, and was later put together. Today, the fire engine rests as an exhibit in the back garage of the Juddha Barun Yantra (Damkal). In those days, the old Kathmandu city had water hydrants all around its vicinity for the engine to get water from. The engine, when plugged to the hydrant, then would holster the water with force to extinguish fires. At present, these water hydrants have disappeared, but you will still see one in Damkal, just a little ahead of the red gate.
Later, in 1944, Juddha Barun Yantra extended its services to Patan and Bhaktapur. Today, our valley has four fire stations, including the one at the airport, while the fire services in Kirtipur, although registered, is underground. However, with the changing times, there are various needs in our fire emergency services that must be addressed; now, more than ever, because fire accidents are increasing day by day.
“What are the challenges for our fire brigades in the country? Why don’t we hear more about our firefighters? How do you recruit them?” I ask Kishor Kumar Bhattarai, the operational chief of Juddha Barun Yantra, Kathmandu Metropolitan City (Damkal). Confident and poised in his seat, Bhattarai gives me a slight smile, hinting me to acknowledge the current state of the building, which still bears the marks of last year’s big tremors. The stairway to his room had fallen down in the quake, and now a ladder replaced it. “Anyone entering this door is more or less aware of the state we are living in. Our building has received its share of damages in the earthquake, but right now, I would say our challenges go beyond the condition of this building,” he says, with an ironical smile.
Bhattarai is an experienced firefighter; he received training as a firefighter and rescue person in Japan (from JICA) and America (from New Castle Fire Department, Pennsylvania). He tells me that the Damkal hasn’t recruited firefighters as of yet from the public. Till date, only government officials and the armed police have been working together to provide emergency fire service. Previously, the fire brigade based in New Road was under the control of the Home Ministry, and it worked together with the Nepal Army Police. It only recently became independent, and now runs the operation of fire services around the valley by itself, without the intervention of the Home Ministry. However, the problem was not in working together with these departments; the actual problem lied in the flaw of not having any interventions or laws and regulations regarding firefighters and fire emergency services in the country.
“Rules and regulations give guidelines for workers, they also state criteria for recruitment of professional rescuers. However, such laws have not been made, and that is why it is difficult for the fire brigade to find rescuers who find purpose in what they do. I am not saying people who are under me are not doing their job, they are working very hard; I am just saying that laws and regulations strengthen an organization, and makes it autonomous, and that is what I want for this institution. This will eventually encourage the younger generation to pursue this profession,” says Bhattarai.
He emphasizes on the transparency of his organization that he had been working on to bring out on the Juddha Barun Yantra website. Unfortunately, his work went all in vain when the government denied him the opportunity by saying that the website could only be a section under the umbrella of the government’s facilities to the public. His idea to inform the public directly is still in the pipeline.
Bhattarai seems to be a radical thinker. He believes his new thinkings are what put him against his own co-workers sometimes. “Some of my team members genuinely believe they are only firefighters; they have limited themselves to just one disaster, and I keep telling them we need to move beyond the defined job of just a fire extinguisher. We are firefighters, but are equally professional rescuers and emergency helpers. We need to develop our disaster management skills, and expand a little medical knowledge. Of course, our firefighters have always helped, but their reluctance to have a simple understanding of giving more on the job sometimes complicates things even more. These are, of course, our internal matters, but unless we are transparent about these problems, we will never get rid of them.”
He further adds, “The public should be more curious about our functioning, because if being a firefighter is our profession, for the public and the rest, it is their security. Hence, if we don’t work well, we won’t be able to provide better security to the country.” And, this is true; the general public’s negligence to acknowledge the workings of the fire brigade is resulting in many problems. One of them is: the job not being recognized as a respected profession. Rather, the workers are undermined as laborers, which is not the case.
What about the equipments? Do we have enough? How many fire brigades do we have in the country? How many emergency vehicles do we have in this unit?
The country has 217 municipalities out of which only 73 municipalities operate fire emergency rescues. The Juddha Barun Yantra is however, the main fire brigade in Kathmandu and all over Nepal, and it assists both Patan and Bhaktapur’s fire emergencies. “Juddha Barun Yantra has all the fire emergency equipments, but they are not enough, because this institution, on most days, has to work in all these areas: Patan, Bhaktapur, and Kiritipur. Many a time, the distances make it impossible for us to run to the rescue. At present, we have three fire engines in wo
rkable state,” says Bhattarai. The major fire engines are the ones the organization got in grant, while some are just trucks remodeled as fire engines. Their water supply is a safety tank that stores about 28, 000 liters. However, their main source of water are water tanks from the municipality. Bhattarai himself had many times penned about problems of the country’s fire emergencies in Nagarik daily: one of them included the problems of not having a proper reservoir, even after being the main body of the fire emergency service.
“Don’t take these as rants, these are the findings of my research, I would say, and I am now working on the solutions. My firefighters should not suffer due to the government’s failed priority. I have a good team at hand, but I am running a little short on resources and manpower. And it’s high time that our government address this part of our story.”
These firefighters and professional rescuers are our unsung heroes, who put their own lives at risk to save ours, but they could be more efficient with proper laws and regulations.
What was the last fire accident that still haunts you?
“The one in Ranjana Galli: a fire triggered by the reaction to stored petroleum. The fire had quickly taken down one storey. I watched a person blaze, while I tried to break into the glass. Something like that shouldn’t happen to anyone. No one should go through such pain. I had really felt helpless at that point,” says Raut, upon egging him to tell me more about his fire rescue experiences. His eyes give me the glint of his regret, and I immediately understood how difficult a firefighter’s life actually is.
Aren’t you scared when you are up there so close to the devil?
“I am a policeman working as a firefighter, I cannot be scared. Obviously, safety comes first, but my job is to protect p
eople. If I am frightened, it will be a shame to be a firefighter. Fear should only encourage me to do better; it shouldn’t be the reason for me to back away from my job.”