EDITORIAL

Fire Service Week: Looking Beyond Firefighting

Akhil Kumar Das
(Akhil Kumar Das is a visiting professor at the University of Petroleum and Energy Studies, Dehradun and consultant professor at the NETES Institute of Technology and Science, Guwahati. He may be reached at dastodas@gmail.com)

Fire Service Week is observed on April 14-20 every year to pay homage to the many fire fighters who lost their lives during a series of explosions on SS Fort Stikine, a ship carrying wartime explosives in the Victoria Docks, Mumbai on April 14, 1944 and to serve as a reminder about the importance of fire safety. The theme for Fire Service Week 2018 is “Fire loss is national loss – let us adopt fire safety measures”.
A propylene tanker en route from Gujarat to Lepetkata overturned near Rongiliting tea estate in Golaghat district in the early hours of February 27 last year. The event was reported in the Hindustan Times the next day as the overturning of an LPG tanker going from Guwahati to Jorhat. Another major “national” news agency reported that the tanker was carrying full LPG cylinders! Surely the reporter does not know that cylinders cannot and are not carried in tankers. The contents of the tanker, be it LPG or propylene, have similar properties so far as its fire behaviour is concerned but my purpose of pointing out this misreporting by a so-called national daily and a national news agency is that the media has little interest except for the sensationalism to make it a headline item.
Bigger the effects, and greater the losses, the more suited it is as a candidate for the headlines. Often the “breaking news” flash continues for a short time – only a day in this case and then it is forgotten. Yes, four innocent lives were lost but this incident had the potential to become a major disaster. That it did not happen because of the great response from a team of emergency responders does not seem to have been of any interest to the media. The commendable confidence, presence of mind and innovation that the team from Numaligarh Refinery displayed to stop the leak went unreported.
Fire Service Day has been observed on April 14 every year post 1944 when there was a major explosion on board the ship SS Stikine while berthed on Victoria Dock (now Indira Dock) of Bombay (now Mumbai) Port. The explosion of the war explosives on board the vessel killed a large number of firemen besides causing extensive damage to property within and outside the port area. To mark the martyrdom of the deceased firemen, the day is observed as Fire Service Day. Decades later, the observance was extended to what is now known as Fire Service Week from April 14 to 20 every year.
Ideally, the role of firemen should be to help people prevent fires and this role is played by them in many parts of the developed world. In India, however, we commonly think of the fire brigades only as fire fighters. Unfortunately, personnel of the fire and emergency service contribute to this impression by turning out only when a fire is reported or to demonstrate the use of fire-fighting appliances during Fire Service Week or on other forums when invited to do so. There is definitely a need for the country’s fire services to step forward and inculcate fire prevention awareness to the public throughout the year and not only during Fire Service Week. That would require revisiting the curriculum of firemen training and widening the scope of their role. 
There is another area of the curriculum that needs review.  Fire service personnel also need to be aware of the provisions of the Central Motor Vehicles Rules (CMVR), 1989 specifically as regards the requirements for the transportation of hazardous materials by road. Among the provisions of the CMVR is the Emergency Panel inscribed on vehicles carrying hazardous goods like gas cylinders, tankers carrying hazardous liquids and gases, explosives etc. A primary purpose of the emergency panel is to help emergency responders like the police and the fire brigades know about the ways in which emergencies involving the materials being transported need to be handled. It may not be far from truth to say that most of these emergency responders across the country are not aware of the purpose of these panels, leave alone using the information contained in them. In fact, as per provisions of the CMVR, drivers of vehicles carrying hazardous materials are supposed to undergo induction and refresher training by the transport departments of the respective states, but they too are commonly unaware of the hazards of the goods they are carrying or about the information contained on emergency panels. This is not surprising as even their trainers are not conversant with details of these provisions.
The fire and deaths that resulted after a petroleum tanker hit a roadside tree and caught fire near Jakhalabandha in Nagaon district on March 29, 2017 is indeed sad. Two crew members and a woman whose house caught fire lost their lives. Makes news for sure but such incidents could also be reported to highlight how the scenario was well managed or not. This would help highlight the preparedness of our emergency response teams to respond to such situations. The ground truth is that there are occasions when senior police officials of the state have called up oil company officials to ask about the hazards and treatment of the situation when petroleum tankers have overturned or caught fire on the roads. That probably is a good response because the police and the fire service (which is part of the state police in Assam) may not be as familiar about the material being transported as oil industry officials but, if they were familiar with the emergency panels, valuable time could be saved in their response. 
The common perception about the role of fire and emergency services is that they are meant to turn up whenever there is an outbreak of fire. Unfortunately, in many cases, this perception is also shared by personnel of these services. Ideally, firemen should be friends of the public – friends not only help when there is trouble, they can be better friends if they can help us from falling into unwanted situations. In that sense, the fire and emergency services can be better friends of citizens helping save life and property through guiding people to prevent fires instead of just turning up to fight fires.