• 26 Mar - 01 Apr, 2016
  • Rabia Mushtaq
  • Feature

Extinguishing the city’s fire since 1914, Karachi’s Fire Department is an epic tale of survival

The screeching sounds of alarm bells and loud announcements on the microphone grab the attention of men fully clad in a navy blue uniform. They immediately rush to put on their protective jackets and don a massive helmet along with a bulky pair of glasses. The fearless men then march towards the gigantic red vehicle to perform one of the most dangerous jobs in the world -– putting off a deadly fire.

Firefighting is certainly one of the toughest jobs in the world. It may sound a little exaggerated, but keeping in mind the circumstances they go through, it makes enough sense for one to compare them to a superhero, who can save precious lives, while risking their own. They need to be skilled and talented in multidimensional ways, particularly in terms of their personal characters which is a must to ensure an appropriate and respectful representation of their department and profession. Articulating the traits and proving them through examples of their daring experiences, they exhibit their qualities by using their own examples and living by them throughout their lives.

For a populous city like Karachi, where more than 24.3 million people reside, fire outbreak is the scariest nightmare ever. However, Karachi’s Fire Brigade Department and its brave firefighters have been shielding the city from deadly fires since 1914, with its headquarters established and maintained by the British before partition at the then Marvic Road. While the Fire Brigade Station located in Saddar has been standing there since 1937. In its initial days, the fire station provided their services to commercial areas, the port and smaller towns. This small-scale fire station was advanced gradually. With its presence in the heart of the city, the Fire Station was then transformed into the fire headquarters instantly. On August 15, 1947 i.e. after partition, the department was taken over by the concerned Pakistani authorities, with two fire stations working then, along with all the necessary vehicles and fire equipment, which has advanced through time. With rapid growth in population and expansion of industrial sector in the metropolitan, more than 20 fire stations have been established since then in various areas and localities of Karachi, providing fire and rescue services to the citizens of the megalopolitan.

Sharing the history and establishment of the Karachi’s Fire Brigade, Station Officer of the headquarters, Mazhar Rafique, briefed about the operations.

“Here, at the headquarters we have 12-14 vehicles, while on other fire stations we have maintained a standard quantity of at least three fire tenders. When in need of additional vehicles, backup is provided by the nearest fire station,” he convincingly said.

A single fire station must have six key vehicles including three fire tenders, one rescue tender, one foam tender and an ambulance to serve a population of one lac people. This is what standards determine; however, situation is quite different for a massive city like Karachi, whose much neglected fire department works with a limited number of fire stations and equipment to handle incidents on an immediate call. Rafique stated that they have 36 fire vehicles on road, and they do not have trouble working with them, in fact issues like traffic, water shortage and lack of awareness among the public is what causes trouble. The department claims to collect water from any possible source available, be it a lake or sea, while desperate times even lead them to use sewerage water for fire extinguishing purposes. Their job is to blow out fire and ensure the process of cooling with the number of resources they possess. He further added, “Though we realise that lack of enough equipment is a hindrance, but we consider fire as our enemy and try our best to fight it for as long as we can, utilising all the resources and staff provided. Technical faults are a natural phenomena and working with limited resources is the ultimate solution.”

Whether it is the lack of funds or the dearth of enough resources faced by fire brigades in Karachi, the lack of coordination is what keeps its smooth functioning slow. Continuous change of administrations and tweaks in SOPs create miscommunication among those in authority.

Zafar Ahmed has been serving the department since 17 years, he is now posted as a sub-fire officer at the headquarters and takes pride in working for the city’s fire department; however, he states the deteriorating situation with a rather resilient demeanour, “Currently, we have 22 fire stations located in various areas of the city, along with 60 vehicles including 4 bowsers, each possessing 4000 litres of water storage capacity and three snorkels, of which only one is functional. This snorkel was given to us in probably 1987 or 1988, it was a complete set, with two fire tankers along, it is an old model and has completed its time period. One snorkel is not enough for a city packed with tall structures. Additionally, we require at least 200 fire stations in a city as populated as Karachi, with staff allocated accordingly. If that is not possible, we will try to work with 100 fire stations as well. Keeping in mind the city’s population and safety, we try our best to deliver as much as possible.”

The fire department has approximately 1300 members in their staff, including members of the administration, workshop, with more than 900 manpower working in the field. That is certainly not enough for a metropolitan. Most of the staff is close to retirement and the number of people being hired is zero. The department requires man power, as well enough fire stations and equipment, for its survival and provision of adequate rescue services to the citizens. The department flourished during Musharraf’s regime, as there were abundant funds to purchase required vehicles and other necessary equipment.

Safety of firefighters is yet another issue. They risk their lives and ensure people’s safety with optimum efforts possible. However, they are trained to believe in safety first, as they can only save people when they are unharmed themselves. The harshness of fire, the heat, chemical reactions and smoke exhaustion in confined spaces, all affects them likewise, despite having their protection gear on. The only difference is, they are trained to combat fire, by hook or by crook. Firefighters of Karachi face similar issues, the minute they encounter a massive incident, as most spots in the city are either congested or the structures are too risky for them to make an entrance. Yet, upon entering the field, they are provided with the best possible training, followed by the provision of personal protective equipments.

Shahbaz Khan, a young courageous firefighter, has been working in the fire headquarters for the last four years. He received his professional training from the Civil Defence Training School in Karachi. Shahbaz claims to have witnessed several extreme fire incidents, the worst being the Baldia factory fire that shook the nation three-and-a-half years ago and is still under investigation. While talking about his safety and the life threatening situations that he comes across, Shahbaz fearlessly said, “We first ensure our safety and then help others because if we ourselves are not safe, how we will help others. We make sure that we are fit enough to rescue people. For this we need to be brave and adept.”

After being asked about the income they get for a tough job like firefighting, Shahbaz said, “Our incomes do not justify our hard work and nature of job. There are delays, but we are still thankful to Allah for providing us enough.”

In a time where the world annually celebrates International day of FireFighters on April 4, Karachi is yet to advance its fire department, upgraded with latest innovations to ensure instant response, availability of equipment and safety of its firefighters. The staff seems efficient enough to hide the department’s deficiencies, since a layman will never notice technical glitches the way a firefighter would.

Firefighters provide round-the-clock services and those working for the city’s fire department have dedicated themselves to protect the life and properties of citizens, often that dedication comes in the form of sacrificing their own life, and giving selfless years of experience in a profession this risky. Karachi’s Fire Department portrays an ultimate tale of endurance; however, it is a firefighter’s life that also stands amidst danger.