The proper tools
SKETCHES - Ana Marie Pamintuan (The Philippine Star) - September 17, 2015 - 10:00am

A house in BF Almanza, Las Piñas burned down Tuesday night. It didn’t merit a news item: it was a bungalow sitting on a lot of perhaps about 300 square meters. The caretaker was not around when the fire started at around 10:30 p.m.

The fire did not spread to other houses, but it took about five hours to put out the blaze. Several fire trucks came promptly enough from all over the city, but the place was used as a warehouse and some welding for a product promo had been done earlier in the day. There were cans of paint, plastic products and combustible materials lying around.

 Electricity supply was switched off quickly in the affected area. The fire trucks were quite new and had ladders and long hoses, and they had ample supply of water. But it was clear that the firefighters – not civilian volunteers but regular members of the Bureau of Fire Protection (BFP) – could use more equipment.

Not all the firefighters wore protective clothing and headgear. They lacked tools to break down windows and doors so they could enter the house. Chemical fires are among the toughest to put out, as we saw in the conflagration last May that destroyed the Kentex slipper factory in Valenzuela, killing over 70 people. In other countries a special type of foam is used to smother such fires.

In Las Piñas at least the bungalow was empty and no one was hurt, but some of those firefighters could have passed out or worse from smoke inhalation. Several of them were battling the blaze without coats, helmets, gloves or masks. Maybe the night was too warm for protective clothing, but many people have perished in fires not from being actually consumed by the blaze but by suffocating from the acrid fumes and lack of oxygen.

The firefighters also clearly lacked lights for the job. Neighbors trained flashlights on the house to help, and point out where fires were sparking back to life – it was a pretty stubborn blaze. One of the firefighters said the powerful light on their nice big truck was broken.

By the time the fire was put out, the house was destroyed. With proper equipment, it might have been saved, with some damage.

Fighting fires is one of the most dangerous jobs, and I salute the people who risk life and limb for this type of work. During the 9/11 terrorist attacks in New York and Washington, many of those who perished were firefighters rescuing the people trapped in the targeted buildings. There are touching memorials erected in honor of those courageous firefighters in New York and Washington.

Our firefighters are not lacking in courage; what they lack is proper equipment.

* * *

They have in fact seen an equipment upgrade since the days when they were photographed using pails of water in a pathetic effort to battle fires even in Metro Manila. New fire trucks have been procured to replace the old ones, and cities and towns with many narrow streets now have mini trucks.

Days before Christmas in 2004, the daughter of then speaker Joe de Venecia and Manay Gina (now a Pangasinan congresswoman) died in a fire that engulfed their home in Dasmariñas Village, Makati. KC de Venecia was found in the bathroom on the second floor, where she had apparently tried to protect herself from the fumes with a blanket or towel she had soaked in water.

She might have been saved – if the firefighters could reach her, but they could not. Firefighters even in the nation’s wealthiest city did not have the equipment to break down the grills on the bulletproof windows. They lacked fireproof gear to climb the stairs to the second floor to rescue a person trapped by a blaze that was triggered reportedly by defective lights on a Christmas tree.

 After that heartbreaking tragedy, there was a lot of noise about modernizing the equipment of firefighters at least in densely populated areas. We saw photos of state-of-the-art fireproof gear that looked like spacesuits with small oxygen tanks. Later, however, there were reports of the high cost of such gear.

The urgency of modernizing firefighting equipment weakened as KC’s story receded from the headlines. But the need was revived in December 2010 when 16 people, including 10 nursing graduates reviewing for the board exams in Tuguegarao died in a fire that engulfed a five-story pension house. The hotel lacked fire safety facilities and the city reportedly lacked fire trucks with ladders long enough to reach many of the fatalities who had tried to take refuge in bathrooms on the two top floors.

Like the story of KC, however, that tragedy also receded from the news.

I’m not sure if our firefighters now have ladders long enough to reach the fifth floor. In the Las Piñas fire, a ladder from one of the fire trucks was propped against a lamppost, up to the level of the power cables, where some guys might have been monitoring the electrical connection.

The head of the BFP Las Piñas office was there but the barangay captain must have been sound asleep. I wonder if he will also sleep through a larger conflagration or in case of a strong earthquake.

* * *

An earthquake is in our minds these days, thanks to warnings from state seismologists about the looming Big One from the movement of the West and East Valley Faults, and from the “shake drills” conducted by senatorial wannabe Francis Tolentino of the Metro Manila Development Authority (MMDA).

Tolentino will soon leave the MMDA to file his certificate of candidacy. His replacement should see to it that Metro Manila is sufficiently prepared not only for evacuation, but also to deal with fires that are likely to break out when buildings crumble, lampposts are toppled and electrical connections go haywire in case of a powerful earthquake.

A study conducted not too long ago by a private firm that supplies analytical data on security concerns to subscribers concluded that Metro Manila is woefully unprepared to deal with a powerful earthquake. The study warned of serious disruptions in electricity, water, transportation and telecommunications services, with supply routes for food and other basic items cut off. Among the weakest areas of response, according to the study, is in battling fires.

The battle to put out that little neighborhood fire in Las Piñas, while successful, was not reassuring. If we want our firefighters to do the job well, we must give them the proper tools.


  • Latest
  • Trending
Are you sure you want to log out?
Login is one of the most vibrant, opinionated, discerning communities of readers on cyberspace. With your meaningful insights, help shape the stories that can shape the country. Sign up now!

or sign in with