Death of a fireman

SINGKIT - Doreen G. Yu - The Philippine Star

A volunteer firefighter was killed in a fire incident in my neighborhood last week. A concrete slab from a gutted house fell on CK (for Chasper Kenneth) Oliver during post-blaze mopping up operations. He was just 25 years old. Sirens wailed as a long convoy of fire trucks and ambulances joined his funeral last Sunday, a poignant salute to a young man who embodied the spirit of volunteerism and public service.

CK was a member of the New San Juan Fire Volunteers, one of several – five, I think – private sector volunteer fire brigades in San Juan. They were the first to respond to the fire last Tuesday on Isla street in Barangay Batis after a rider making a delivery in the area sounded the fire alert. Over 80 families were left homeless by the fire, believed to have been caused by faulty electrical wiring, and are now staying at the San Juan gym.

Volunteer fire brigades are an indispensable part of firefighting efforts all over the country, especially in Metro Manila. Government resources, under the Bureau of Fire Protection, are sorely inadequate for a nation of 115 million. BFP data show that this year, from January to March 8, there were 3,590 fire incidents that resulted in 72 civilian and two BFP firefighter casualties, with damage to property estimated at P2.3 billion. The most common causes of fires, according to the BFP, are smoking (from lighted cigarettes and/or cigarette butts), faulty electrical connection/wiring and open flame cooking.

At a Senate hearing earlier this year, the BFP revealed that of the 1,485 municipalities in the country, 123 have no fire truck or fire station. (The BFP has almost 3,000 trucks; volunteer fire brigades have 1,300.) As well, the BFP lacks about 24,000 firefighters, with one firefighter for every 36,000 people against the ideal ratio of 1:2,000. RA 11589 enacted in September 2021 was the latest of repeated efforts to modernize and upgrade the BFP in terms of equipment and personnel, but these have yet to be actualized, despite the usual hand-wringing and lofty intentions expressed after every major fire incident and during Fire Prevention Month every March.

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What is it about Tsinoy restaurants and volunteer firefighters? The story of the ube fire trucks of Gerry Chua of Eng Bee Tin/Chuan Kee in Binondo is near legend. Cafe Mezzanine, above Chuan Kee at the corner of Ongpin and Nueva streets, has photos and firemen’s helmets as decor, as well as a framed copy of a feature in STARweek magazine. Cafe Mezzanine was our go-to lunch place when our office was in Port Area. Alas, Sucat road in Parañaque is a bit too far to go for maki-mi (walang sibuyas, please) and xiao long pao. Gerry’s example has led to many other volunteer fire brigades being organized all over the metropolis.

In my neck of the woods, there is a volunteer fire brigade also based in a restaurant; their color is gold, coming from a heart of gold and chicken that is, well, worth its weight – and taste – in gold.

Golden Fire and Rescue is based in the Golden Chicken House on N. Domingo street, an unpretentious eatery that has been serving up unpretentiously delicious food for about four decades. I first ordered food from them after reading in our community Viber chat group about how they responded to fires in the neighborhood; I did so more as a form of support than anything else, since their menu listed nothing extraordinary, just typical Tsinoy lutong bahay. But – pardon this unabashed plug – the food turned out to be quite good (reasonably priced too), you could say authentic rather than terribly commercialized.

They of course do chicken – there are 14 chicken items on the menu – but let me recommend the pineapple honey glazed chicken (I am not a fan of pineapple but this is good), lumpiang shanghai which is not quite what you’d expect, special cha misua (real comfort food) and the pata (pork hock) – Pinoy crispy or Tsinoy braised.

Ting Chap Yao and his relatives started Holy Chicken in 1983 as a take out and delivery service, cooking up family recipes that found a receptive clientele. A fire in 1996 destroyed their place and son Jerwin, who had just finished college, not only jumped in to rebuild the business (renamed Golden Chicken House) but found a calling amid the tragedy – the need to help others affected by fire incidents. He joined volunteer fire brigades and, blessed with success in the restaurant, eventually saved enough money to buy his own fire truck. Golden Fire now has two fire trucks and its own headquarters located near Golden Chicken, where you may sometimes find Jerwin in the kitchen, with the restaurant’s cooks who have been with them for years, some even from his father’s time.

Typical of the passion, commitment and dedication of most volunteer firefighters, Jerwin speaks enthusiastically about not just the actual work of putting out fires – I never realized how technical and coordinated an operation it has to be, requiring not just a lot of training but also the ability to make split second decisions when confronted with challenging situations, each one different and, literally, involving life and death – but about the constant training and conditioning they undergo, as well as efforts at engaging the public on fire safety and prevention with lectures in schools and visits to their headquarters (kids get to go on the fire trucks, which is always a treat). Skills of the volunteers are constantly honed with trainings, even abroad, and equipment maintained and upgraded; they are now looking to procure rescue equipment like power tools.

Sustaining Golden Fire is not easy nor is it cheap but, Jerwin says, “God has blessed me and my family naman, and we only have one life to live, I want to glorify God and finish well for Him.” Now that is a real Golden Rule to live by.

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