Five minutes. This thin, precious, slice of time is all the window one gets to escape a fire accident. For a firefighter, the countdown that begins with the distress call turns into agonising moments of helplessness as his fire truck navigates traffic snarls and narrow roads to reach the accident spot.
Once there, his humble uniform and gear are no match for the fury of the flames - there is a scarcity of personnel protective equipment that could shield his body, sometimes, there aren’t even enough masks. His fire truck does not have the sleek hydraulic ladders that can match the towering heights of a high rise or even a moderately tall building. His training may not have equipped him to deal with the challenges that come with the ever-changing profile of modern buildings - beautiful to look at, but death-traps in a fire.
With so many odds stacked against him, he still bravely steps in to tame the inferno. If he survives that, he has to summon superhuman strength to pull in a double or triple shift until the fire dies down, eating and drinking donated food and water in the harsh pollution of the accident site. If he is injured or ill with suffocation, with no insurance cover, he prays that a government or corporation hospital is close by.
If this is the story of a fire-fighter in some of the richest municipalities in the country, one can only hazard a guess about the plight of the community elsewhere in India.
Despite a 200-year history, the fire services in India are grappling with massive shortages. The pilot study commissioned by the Standing Fire Advisory Council, Ministry of Home Affairs, in 2011, reveals a bleak picture - India is short of 78 per cent of fire stations, 82 per cent of firefighting and rescue vehicles, 93 per cent of specialised equipment and nearly 90 per cent of firefighting personnel.
Fire being a state subject, it is the responsibility of the state governments and municipalities. However, even the combined funding of the Centre and state for the sector is pitiably meagre, given the actual funds needed for strengthening and modernising fire services.
The poorly-paid, overworked firefighter bears the brunt of these deficiencies. The media occasionally brings their plight to notice, but the attention soon wanes with the end of the news cycle.
There was a recent heartbreaking story of the Gautam Budh Nagar fire department at Noida, where the team couldn’t attend to a fire emergency simply because there was no fuel in their vehicles. Petrol bunks, in the face of a year’s worth of dues from the state government, refused to release fuel. It required the intervention of the District Magistrate to convince the bunks to provide the necessary fuel to attend to the case.
Attracting talent to the field, therefore, is a distant dream - in an anxious attempt to fill the eight vacant ranks in India’s lone fire services college in Nagpur, even diploma holders were invited to apply. The students currently depend on the expertise of guest faculty.
The firefighter is bereft even of the support of civil society, whose low awareness about fire prevention and safety makes his job all the more dangerous and difficult.
Like other men and women in uniform, firefighters too are unsung heroes, who deserve recognition for their selfless service. The sad state of India’s firefighters is a call to our collective conscience. If fire is the most ancient risk known to man, how is it that we have ignored the needs of these bravehearts willing to lay down their lives without hesitation to save others?