The rescue of 200 people trapped inside the smoke-filled Punjab National Bank at Parliament Street last Wednesday that the news TV channels ran live, was the biggest and the best coordinated operation the Delhi firemen conducted in the past 20 years.
In 2005, a major fire in Kirti Nagar timber market had claimed the lives of the then deputy fire chief and two firemen. This time, there were no casualties or major injuries. Relieved, we switched off our TV sets when the hour-long operation got over and went about our day's business. So did the firefighters. Except that they didn't get into their cars or metro and headed home. In the 24 hours following their biggest operation, they took another 120 emergency calls.
In Delhi, where public services are not rated high on the efficiency quotient, the firefighter's story is truly heart-warming. Working unsociable hours and risking life almost every day, a fireman does a lot more than dousing fires. He pulls out people from collapsed buildings, rescues those stuck in lifts, attend to all types of emergency situations such as drowning, gas leaks and accidents. All operations in high-rise buildings are conducted by the fire department.
Remember the minor domestic help who was locked up in an apartment in Dwarka by her employers who went holidaying abroad? She was rescued by our firemen.
They provide this vast range of services not only to Delhi but to all NCR towns including far-off Sonepat and Bahadurgarh. So it is not surprising that Delhi fire brigade attends to 22,000 emergency calls in a year - more than the sum of emergency calls received by fire brigades in India's three other metros. Firemen also conduct safety audits of buildings, venues for shows and concerts, and large tents where functions are held. They also find time for the mandatory equipment testing and training. Yet, you rarely have a fireman not taking a call or a fire engine turning up late.
One would expect these indispensable foot soldiers of safety to be suitably compensated. But the government treats them like any other employee. Their salaries and health benefits compare with that of any sarkari babu on a desk job. Firefighting means braving 200 degrees Celsius heat, inhaling toxic gases and encountering burnt bodies.
Heat exhaustion, cramps, thermal stress and emotional trauma are standard occupational hazards. The job can literally kill. Yet, a fireman is not entitled to any special medical insurance even after a recommendation by the Sixth Pay Commission. The government, however, recompense firefighters with a risk allowance of Rs. 150 a month!
With 72-hour shift for a station officer and above, their work hours are possibly the longest in any fire service across the world. In the UK and the US, a firefighter works 42 to 56 hours a week. In China, the fire service union is demanding that the existing weekly work hours be reduced from 54 to 48, in line with those of other disciplined services.
But our firefighters have learnt not to complaint. Working nights and weekends is part of the job. Almost all firefighters do full shift on festivals. Last Diwali, they attended to 200 emergency calls. To top it all, procedural delays have held back recruitment of at least 2,000 personnel. Against a sanctioned strength of 3,500, there are only 1,500 boots on the ground. The expanse of DFS's jurisdiction demands at least 70 fire stations but the existing network has only 54.
It is perhaps time the government starts giving our gritty firemen their due. They deserve a little more than a benevolent fund run on public donations.