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Our fire service in need of an extensive upgrade

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Fri, Aug 31, 2012

This week, a member of the Fire Department complained to SEARCHLIGHT about the unfavourable conditions under which he says he and his colleagues work, and other grievances he said firefighters have.

Some of the firefighter’s grievances would be difficult for us to prove, for instance, the allegation of untoward treatment by other members of the Police Force.{{more}}

But that firefighter did not have to come forward for residents of St Vincent and the Grenadines to know that the fire service is in a bad way. That firefighter, however, gave an insider’s account of what is very obvious every time firefighters respond to a blaze: that the Fire Department is in urgent need of extensive upgrade.

The government knows of the situation with the Fire Service. Deputy Prime Minister Girlyn Miguel, then acting prime minister, was on-site in August when firefighters were putting out the blaze at the Kingstown Government School. And Prime Minister Dr Ralph Gonsalves visited the Administrative Centre shortly after firefighters managed to put out the blaze that destroyed the census data.

But St Vincent and the Grenadines is a small developing country, with heavy demands on its limited financial resources. Further, SEARCHLIGHT recognises the efforts of the Government to improve the fire service nationally, including the recent purchase by VINLEC of two new fire suits, and the provision of fire tenders for some of the nation’s rural police stations.

However, seeing our firefighters in action is heartbreaking, even as we praise their efforts in the face of the risks to which they expose themselves when doing their job.

We have seen the streets of Kingstown drenched by leaking hoses when firefighters respond to a blaze. And earlier this month, when firefighters responded to the fire at the Kingstown Government School, low water pressure there made use of a hydrant a waste of time. The top floor of the building burned as the fire truck made trips to downtown Kingstown to refill, until a temporary hydrant could be installed. Further, our reporters saw only one firefighter dressed in the appropriate protective gear. But not even he, wore a respirator. In fact, none of the police officers, including firefighters, at the fire, had any respiratory protection.

But a senior police officer told our reporters that “the men have respiratory gears, but sometimes even they would brave the situation and attempt to deal with in the absence thereof”. If this is the case, we urge the Fire Chief to insist that firefighters use them.

We also hope that our story would not lead to a witch-hunt in which the Police Force tries to find out which officer spoke to us about the issue. For, while we understand the embarrassment that the story may have caused the Police Force, this is a national issue that warrants urgent attention. Time and energy should not be wasted trying to identify the whistleblower.

We welcome the news from Commissioner Miller that training is provided for the men and that efforts are being made to acquire additional equiment and gear. Firefighters need proper equipment in much the same way that the Coastguard needs boats to secure our borders and conduct search and rescue and that the Rapid Response Unit, SSU, and Drug Squad need guns, bullets, and bullet-proof vests to effectively do their work.

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