When a city of 22 million has only 19 fire stations
“I’m glad you’ve come here,” Saddar fire station in-charge Wajahat Khan says as he welcomes me into his office in Karachi. “It’s not easy being accused of not doing our jobs properly.”
Whenever there is a fire incident in the city, which is quite often, the media, victims, eye witnesses and at times even officials are quick to point fingers at the fire department over negligence.
“There is no denying that the fire department has some very obvious limitations, but it’s never a one-sided issue,” Wajahat says.
With this feature, we aim to encapsulate a visual journey through the Karachi fire department – from several fire stations, to actual fire incidents – with the intent of investigating and documenting the other side of the story.
A framed portrait of fallen firefighter Naseer Ahmed hangs on the front wall of the Saddar fire station. He lost his life a decade ago when a roof collapsed on him as he was putting out a fire in Karachi’s SITE area.
Karachi has 22 fire stations of which only 19 are functional. The Saddar fire station is one of the two stations established before Partition. The newest station was built in Gulshan-e-Maymar five years ago.
According to Wajahat, there should ideally be one fire station for every 100,000 people. However, Karachi has only 19 functional fire stations for its more than 22 million residents, 11 times the workload.
The Saddar fire station control room in-charge recalls how people would often call the fire brigade helpline as a prank. “To counter that, we had to call back the number to confirm the emergency. This added to the response time, but we didn’t have a choice.”
Lead firefighter Mohammad Shareef says there was a time when people would call ‘16’ and their call was routed to their local fire station. This changed about 10 years ago and now ‘16’ connects the caller to the main call-centre located in Civic Centre, which then forwards the call to the local fire station. This process naturally takes longer and is not as efficient as calling the local landline number of the nearest fire station.
Even ‘16’ is the target of prank calls, the Saddar control room in-charge tells us, especially late at night.
“We drop everything when we hear the fire alarm. Often, we have to break our namaz to respond to an emergency. Nothing is more important when human lives are at stake,” says a firefighter who chose to remain anonymous.
Khan points out that building control authorities and local fire stations abroad are always on the same page; one cannot start construction without a No Objection Certificate (NOC) by the local fire department. In Pakistan, however, such a concept does not exist because getting an approval from the fire station means increasing the cost of the project by 20%, he says.
“Not once in my lifetime has a plan been forwarded to me for approval by Karachi Building Control Authority (KBCA). They okay plans without our approval. Nothing is ever approved by us. God knows what they do.”
Earlier this year, Karachi Metropolitan Corporation (KMC) chief fire officer Tehseen Siddiqui told The Express Tribune that in his two-decade-long career, not once has he seen a building plan being approved by his department.
Firefighter Mohammad Shareef says Sindh provincial laws state that every industrial site should have a plan of their building on their entrance, which specifies where all the emergency exits, fire extinguishers, hydrants, and first aid kits are located. However, there is hardly any building following this law, he adds.
“When we reach fire sites we don’t know where to go, we have to rely on our instincts, and ask the people around.”
Further, aspirant firefighters have to complete a five-week course from the Civil Defense Academy but those in charge of training recruits have little or no practical knowledge of fire safety, and their theories are outdated as they aren’t working in the field, claims Shareef. In fact, some people pay bribes to acquire a certificate without undergoing training.
Karachi’s fire department currently owns four snorkels – fire trucks that have ladders and hydraulic platforms that can be used to reach the fire or victims trapped inside high-rise buildings. Only one of the snorkels is in full working condition and is situated at the Central fire station. One working snorkel while the number of high-rise building continues to increase in Karachi. The SITE fire station specially needs more snorkels as it caters to an industrial area.
“I know you are going to think I am sleeping and lazing around, which causes us to be late to fire incidents but that is not the case,” firefighter Arshad Kabeer explains. “I am completely prepared for a fire emergency. From the moment the fire alarm rings, it takes less than three minutes to get the truck out of the station. We are advised to rest and conserve energy, because we don’t know how long or how physically demanding the next rescue mission will be.”
Firefighter Ahmad Ali goes as far as saying that firefighters are “victims of mistreatment and disrespect”. He adds that often people abuse and even physically assault firefighters when they reach fire sites. “Since victims are in panic, they expect us to reach just minutes after their call. It does not work that way; there are various factors involved.”
“I am no different than a soldier guarding his country’s border at night,” another firefighter, who chose to stay anonymous, says. “We too prepare ourselves for every possible situation, even if that means sacrificing our lives to save a citizen. But it’s sad how we are not seen that way.”
“Our equipment has not been updated in more than four years,” station officer Wahajat Ahmed says. “Everything is outdated here. And whatever equipment we have is in poor condition.” He goes on to say that expecting the latest, automated equipment is unrealistic. But adds that if they only replace the damaged equipment and provide basic gear, such as hose pipes, it could make a big difference.
“The supplies we receive are limited in number and have to be shared among firefighters,” Ahmed says. “Some men are not comfortable sharing safety gear with others due to hygiene concerns.” He adds that firemen would be more responsible with their gear if each had his own items, instead of having to share. “A fireman with a complete set of tools is a must. Often firemen have to purchase their gear such as helmets and torches with their own money.”
Station officer Mazhar of the Central fire station tell The Express Tribune that according to the rules established during the British era, the time between receiving a call and the team leaving the fire station should be 30 seconds during the day and one minute during the night.
“We try our best to maintain the time-frame, but it’s very difficult, especially because our vehicles are way past their lifespan and in poor condition,” he says.
“Every time there is a minister or a VIP moving around the city, the roads are blocked for us to make way for them. Often, we get stuck in traffic, and then we have to deal with abuse and blame for being late to the fire incident,” a fire department driver, who also chose to remain anonymous, said.
Khan explains that it’s very easy to blame the firefighter for arriving late at the scene. “The most we can do is leave our premises as soon as possible; we cannot do anything about the traffic, especially when this department is treated like any other civilian by both the traffic police and the public.”
Station officer Mazhar of the Central fire station says that is a basic traffic rule that whenever a traffic police officer sees an emergency vehicle approaching, he should regulate traffic towards the left and clear the way on the right lane. Unfortunately, this never happens.
“Due to the general lack of awareness, whenever we have the emergency siren on, many people think that we are just misusing the siren. Many jam their vehicles next to ours and try to get ahead of us.”
“We were only given two month’s overtime after the protests, just as someone would give a lollipop to a child so that he stops crying for the time being.”
“The fire and rescue department of a city should be given the top priority,” a firefighter says. “We are, after all, risking our lives to save others, but sadly ours is the worst treated department. Being stress-free is the most important requirement of this job. I shouldn’t have to think about how I’m going to pay my children’s school fees when I’m at a fire scene.”
Ayaan Khalil climbs into a fire tender to pose for a picture in Aqeel Shaheed fire station (SITE), which is named after his uncle who lost his life on duty as a firefighter.
“I want to become a firefighter and save people’s lives,” Khalil says.
“Are you not afraid of fire?”
He convincingly nods no.
It runs in his family, he says. Some of his cousins are also receiving training from the Civil Defense Academy, while his father works as a firefighter at this station.
A senior firefighter says expired fire extinguishers are a huge risk as they could be ineffective if a fire breaks out. “This is one of the first things we check after putting out a fire because it is the number one way to defend ourselves when the victims start their blame game.”
“Expired fire extinguishers are seen on a regular basis,” he adds. “I don’t understand how people invest so much in their businesses but they do little to ensure the safety of those businesses.”
“Every station has a water reservoir with enough capacity to deal with fire emergencies, but when the country is facing a water crisis, how can we expect to fill them up? We receive water from the same lines as other citizens, at fixed times, we don’t get water from the 24-hour main trunk. If water supply is disrupted for citizens for three days, it also disrupted for us. The same is the case with electricity – when there’s a power-outage, there is no water. Water is our main weapon and should be at our disposal at all times.”
“There is a common misconception that firefighters reach fire sites without water in their trucks. That’s not true. Our trucks are full when we reach fire sites but the problem arises once we run out of that water. We don’t have street hydrants that we can connect our pipes to and get an uninterrupted supply. We end up calling other fire stations or making rounds of visiting water hydrants when we run out of water at a fire scene. Not only does this waste time, it also gives the fire enough time to regain strength.”
Firefighters complain that most of the time people avoid calling the fire service fearing that the news would go public, and only call when the situation has completely out of their hands.
“Only after calling us should they begin their own efforts to extinguish the fire,” says one of the firefighters. “We reach the spot when the fire is completely out of control, thus adding to the time it will take for us to extinguish it, increasing the risk of the loss of lives and valuables. This is what happened at the Regent Plaza fire.”
Wajahat mentions that the media and public also make it difficult for them to work. “Before we even start our work, the media starts pouncing on us to gather information about the details of the fire. Members of the public sometimes stand really close to the fire and watch as if it’s a spectacle.”
“Everyone in the crowd becomes a fire expert, and has numerous suggestions for how we should do our job,” Central fire station Officer Mazhar says.
“A firefighter should not be distracted in such a critical time as lives and people’s valuables are at risk. The area should be completely cordoned off by the police (it’s their responsibility not ours) but most of the time, we are on our own.”
Nasir Hussain’s hips and thighs were severely burnt after he took part in a firefighting mission. The total daily expense for just the ointments that he has to use comes out to Rs720. His allowance for such events is only Rs50 for the whole month.
He has no other form of medical insurance and has to spend his own money. It will take him a minimum of one year to fully recover and resume his duty. The recovery process will involve skin grafting and physiotherapy. Hussain is prescribed complete bed rest for now, as it’s hard for him to even make limited movement.
He admits he was in civilian clothing when he reached the fire site, but says that even if he was in his uniform, he would not have been spared. “I don’t understand. Our apparel is made out of polyester, it clings to our body when it gets hot, whereas a fire suit is supposed to be made out of insulated material which repels heat.”
“I grew up listening to emergency bells. I couldn’t think of anything better to peruse,” says Mohammad Waqas, pictured above.
“I passed my intermediate exams at the age of 22 and I’ve been a firefighter ever since. It’s in my blood; my father and grandfather both served in this fire station.”
“Yeh aik nashay ki tarhan hai. (It is sort of a high)”
“I can’t explain the adrenaline rush of working as a firefighter; I can’t work behind a desk,” says Zafar Ahmad, pictured above.
Ahmad’s foot was crushed under a wall which collapsed while he was trying to put out a fire that had broken out during a wedding ceremony.
It takes Ahmad ages to dress up his foot, which now has zero blood circulation. Hussain was termed physically disabled by doctors after the accident but couldn’t resist the urge to go out in the field again. He works as a sub-fire officer, assessing fire scenes and managing firefighters.
According to one estimate, 16,500 people die and 164,000 are injured or disabled every year in fire related incidents in Pakistan.
“In spite of all the limitations we have, bureaucratic or logistical, I can say one thing for sure: when we hear the fire alarm, we put everything aside. On an interpersonal level, we are fully committed and prepared to sacrifice our lives to save others,” says another firefighter, choosing to remain anonymous. “It’s a lie if someone else tells you otherwise.”
Zoral Naik is a Pakistan based photojournalist and documentary photographer. You can find more of his work here.