At some stage most of us living in the Colombo city have seen a crimson fire engine speedily navigating through traffic with wailing sirens aglow. Fire is a force that can spread, engulf and destroy in minutes. Containing a blazing inferno is a dangerous job. Yet the men of the Colombo Fire Brigade boldly respond to this emergency with dedication.
The fire fighting mechanism was brought into operation in Colombo during colonial times somewhere in the year 1890 with horse-drawn water gallons. The service has grown since then, playing a very important role in responding to many fires, especially during the three decades of conflict. Today the Fire Brigade functions under the leadership of Fire Chief Rohitha Fernando, who counts 36 years of unblemished service.
Fernando said that the present fleet consists of various fire engines from Japan, Korea and the Netherlands. A recruit fireman undergoes a full year of extensive training in fire fighting and first aid. They are continuously monitored and trained in every possible scenario, with the priority of working safely and saving human lives.
The fireman can move on to become motorman, first class fireman, leading fireman, sub officer and station officer. Colombo is a rapidly growing city and the fire service also faces new challenges with high rise buildings and more traffic on the roads which can at times delay a rapid response.
The Control Room is the vital hub of operations. Once the first phone call is received the operator verifies the location of the fire. He then pushes the general alarm that immediately alerts everyone on duty. The experienced station officer will dispatch the fire engine most suited to respond to the type of fire. As the alarm penetrates the air, fire-fighters dash to their parked vehicles, whose engines are already running. They dress into their fire retardant suits within 30 seconds, which is a hallmark of their discipline. Each kit with fire retardant material costs Rs. 300,000 with boots, air tank and helmet.
The First Turn Out consists of a fire engine and an additional water bowser. The fire engine has a crew of six, with the riding officer in charge (OIC) who has a very responsible task of assessing the fire once the crew reaches the engulfed building. This officer then directs his crew to engage the fire, without compromising their own safety. Monitoring the fire, he will request for backup from the Control Room where the Second Turn Out crew is on standby.
During the process of controlling a large inferno the station officer may deploy the command vehicle which has advanced communications to directly liaise with Police, General Hospital, Electricity Board and Water Board. The OIC of the Command vehicle then assumes control in delegating each fire engine to a specific section of the fire.
RG Wijesuriya is the Division Officer in charge of operations. He is a 30-year veteran of the force and was one of the brave first responders at the scene of the devastating Central Bank bomb explosion in January 1996. Wijesuirya explained that there are 60 firemen on duty everyday who work a 24-hour shift at the Colombo headquarters. They work as crews on fire engines, RIVs (rapid intervention vehicles) rescue vehicles and ambulances. A fire engine is loaded with many life saving instruments apart from the hose pipes and ladders. Each truck has a capacity of 2000-4000 liters of water. As the water is pressurized and released it pumps out of each line at an amazing 1800 liters per minute.
The fire service crews operate from five sub stations within Colombo with the Wellawate substation having a special Chemical and Hazardous Material Fire Response Unit, whose fighters were trained in Singapore and the Netherlands. The firemen face new challenges today. Often the water pressure from the existing fire hydrants, located on some main roads, are not sufficient as the distribution pipes are burdened with water supply to many new buildings and apartments. Another form of hindrance firemen face is the curiosity of people crowding around a fire and obstructing the rapid response. There have been some situations when such persons have stolen small implements from the parked fire engines.
The dedicated fire response crews work around the clock but their welfare needs improvements. Their barracks ought to have more infrastructures that will allow them to rest and have a clear mindset to carry out their duties. Fire Chief Fernando has submitted a proposal to introduce motorbikes to respond to a fire as a pilot vehicle, a practice done in Singapore and Malaysia. Two firefighters on a bike can mitigate a blaze with compressed air foam (CAF System) before it spreads. The fire service performs a most important task which is often not recognized and appreciated and the dire need is for Sri Lankans to adapt a safety and fire prevention mindset.