On Friday, after losing two of their own when trying to put out a fire in Vikaspuri, the firemen of the Delhi Fire Services headed out to respond to three more calls. Atul Garg, the current chief fire officer of central and south Delhi zone and the fire prevention wing, said that his team was motivated and no amount of risk ever slowed them down.
“People run away from fires, my men run towards it. What happened on Friday was a great loss, and unfortunately not uncommon in our line of work. Just two months ago, two firefighters lost their lives in Narela. But we keep working. After the Vikaspuri incident, we responded to three more calls. It is our duty,” he said.
The unsung heroes of the country, firemen lead lives that have risk of injuries and mortality as a part and parcel of it. Hindustan Times asked some of these men if they are given proper protection gear, what keeps them going and how they deal with the pressures of a high-risk environment.
Though critics have claimed that many of the 3,299 people affiliated with the Delhi Fire Services, who may be dispatched to a site of fire, are not provided with individual protective gear, officials with the department said that all the officers are provided with basic personal protection gears like helmets, fire repellent dungarees, gumboots, and breathing operators for smoke intensive sites.
AK Sharma, the ex-director of DFS spoke of how they had tried to get their staff upgraded versions of the uniform, which were imported from Europe, to ensure better safety from flash fires. The high rates meant that they got only around 200 suits, and had three to four suits on every vehicle to be shared by the staff.
Even these were later discontinued, because it was not made for India’s tropical climate, and the fire servicemen said it made movement “cumbersome,” according to Garg.
Sharma and Garg reiterated how the latest fatality was because of a “blast” and no amount of gear would have protected people from it. The only way may be prevention.
“The most common cause of fires in Delhi is carelessness. Electricity is not a problem if handled properly. Cylinders are not the culprits. It is people’s attitudes,” said Sharma.
Garg said that in the Vikaspuri case, there were four cylinders within the small confined space. “We were told it was a shop. So we were not expecting gas cylinders to be in there. Even if we were told it was a restaurant, extra gas cylinders are not to be stored next to the stove, in warm areas,” he said.
The unpredictable nature of the job and the high risks involved means that every day these men face life threatening situations.
“At the borders you go to war rarely. Firefighters are at multiple battles every day. But we do not go into our jobs expecting to get hurt. When I broke my spine and collar bone (trying to rescue people from the Uphaar cinema fire), I had never imagined that it would happen to me,” said SK Dheri, an ex fire serviceman who had been injured in the 1997 fires at Uphaar cinema.
The pressures of the job are usually a bigger burden for their families, according to some.
“On average we get around 130-140 calls daily during the summer, but this time of the year, we get around 80-90 calls daily... Whenever I am called in to work, my wife does not sleep. She will call every now and then to ensure that I am safe,” said Garag.