Trivandrum, as with most other cities, is thickly populated and densely structured, with multi-storeyed buildings springing up on almost every street within and around the city. The lack of proper procedural steps behind granting building licenses and the inefficiency in properly executing the stated safety rules form a fertile ground for an accidental fire to grow and spread, capable of causing immense loss, both in terms of money and life, at any time. The power house of the government, the Secretariat building at Statue Junction, with all its official files and documents, is yet to have a separate fire wing to tackle the situation in case of a fire. While fire safety is a major concern for every major city anywhere around the world, the authorities of the state are only slowly warming up to the matter, more so after the recent instances of fire at Chalai Market and in the SreePadmanabha Swamy Temple premises.
But handling fire emergencies aren’t the only job for Kerala Fire and Rescue Service Department.
“We are entrusted with immediate deployment of our services for any public urgency, be it fire, flood or a road accident,” says Saji Ram, Secretary, Kerala Fire and Safety Drivers and Mechanics Association.
According to Saji Ram, the need for an efficiently working fire and rescue department couldn’t be any more imminent than it is now.
“Take Chalai Market for example – rows of old buildings mainly made of wood built at very close proximity with each other. In case of a fire, the flames could spread rapidly through the buildings and the losses inflicted would be unaccountable. The licensing of cracker factories and shops selling them at the time of Diwali is hazard. High rise buildings are sprouting faster than ever before in the city, yet a proper mode for facing the situation if any of the upper floors catches fire is almost nil.”
The Kerala Fire and Rescue Services Department presents a picture perfect description of the inefficiency that’s more or less the norm for almost all government handled departments. The shortage of manpower is acute within the department, with over 2500 vacancies yet to be filled. Even in the allocated driver’s post numbering to 680, only 400 or so have been filled. On paper, the fire and rescue services department has over 325 vehicles in the form of fire engines, jeeps and ambulances, but in reality 40% of them are lying idle at various fire stations all over the state.
“The maintenance work needed for these vehicles is meager. But the ‘proper’ procedures and paperwork delays it by months, sometime even for years. So the little maintenance that the vehicle needs and for which the vehicle has been pulled off from the road, gradually develops into more complicated and expensive work as the vehicles lie idle for too long. If you check the records you will find that most of the vehicles which had been auctioned from the department had covered a distance of less than 20000 kilometers while in service.”
In addition to the lack of proper maintenance, there is also a severe lack of vehicles equipped with modern facilities within the department.
“We are expected to carry around 4000 litres of water and rush to the spot using vehicles that don’t even have power steering facility in them,” points out Saji Ram.
The skyline of Trivandrum, as well as most other major cities and towns within the state, is rapidly changing. High rise buildings are the most practical solution to the housing needs of a population whose spending power is ever on the rise. However, when it comes for the Fire and Rescue Department to be kept up to date with the changing times, the result is not only disappointing but a tad terrifying as well.
“The existing ladders that we have with us are capable of lifting us
only to the height of about three storeys. The department had procured
two sky lifts, one at Trivandrum and one at Kochi and both of them are
not in operational conditions. In the event of a fire in any of the high
rises, we could only rely on manual power and the will power of
climbing up and down that many storeys in the heat and the smoke.”
Add that to the unavailability of protection suits, water proof coats,
bad hoses which get tampered after a few rounds of usage and the picture
still remains only half complete. The corruption behind buying new
vehicles and utensils for the department is virtually choking the entire
force. The vehicles bought new are often ill designed and ill equipped.
“There have been instances when the new vehicles had to be relegated to
2nd units as the existing older ones are far better than them. Some
vehicles, demand us to do circus tricks to just get into them. The
arrangement of the climbing pedal, support handle and the seats inside
are just plain ridiculous. On the driver’s side, the clutch would be in
one end and the accelerator at another end way outside the normal reach
of your feet. So in effect, the driver has to literally stand up and
step on the clutch, change the gear and then move to the other side to
step on the accelerator pedal. The chassis of the vehicles are often old
and impractically designed. Keep in mind that we are a team of men who
are required to be in the vehicle and rushing to the spot within a
minute of an emergency call.”
The crew on one such vehicle should ideally consist of a driver, a
leading fireman and three firemen, among which, the driver handles the
most responsible job and yet is the one who suffers the most.
“The job profile of the driver defines him as
‘fireman-driver-cum-pump-operator. He is the back bone of the entire
department. He has to rush the vehicle to the spot, operate the water
pump and do any other job as and when required in case of insufficient
number of staff personnel, which mostly is the case with us.”
Typically, one driver is to be on a 24 hour duty at a stretch, with two
days of rest period before getting back to duty. But the shortage in
drivers is forcing those already on duty to take extra shifts and less
“Even during rest hours, we are forced to take a lot of hardships,” says
Mohana Kumar who is a driver. “Most of the stations lack basic
facilities like a bed or even a bathroom. The existing system is such
that those who join the department as drivers are forced to retire in
the same post with no scope of a promotion.”
The norms for promotion of staff within the department were rewritten in
1988 and were written in such a manner that it affected the drivers the
most, although their service is the most valuable and essential one
needed for the working of the entire department.
“At first we were duly promoted on the basis of experience. On promotion
we were made mechanics and then station officers. But since ‘88, the
qualification needed for being mechanics has been raised. I can assure
you that whatever they teach you at the institutions never equals what
is gained from experience. So our years of service matters much more
than the paper qualification required for a mechanic. But as of now, we
are not being promoted because we are not qualified enough for it. To
rectify this, it was decided to give the drivers, training classes for
being a mechanic with a test at the end. Whoever passed the test would
be eligible for promotion. The move was made in 1988. The first batch
after the training classes came out in 2010; so you can see how
ill-treated we are," says Dinesh Kumar, another driver in the Kerala
Fire and Rescue Department.
The root cause for all the inefficiencies within a department is due to
the unequal distribution of merit where the less working get promoted
to higher paying posts, while the hard working are often overlooked, if
possible even stepped upon. To look after the morale of the workforce is
as much important as keeping the machines and facilities up to date. In
the case of the Kerala Fire and Rescue Service Department, the need for
strength and confidence is not just for those employed, but for the
common pubic as well, in the event of a tragedy.