Fired up — that’s why they’re hired
Members of the Municipal Fire-Fighting Unit and their fire-truck. GT2/Taing Rinith
A Khmer proverb says, “A sinking boat in the middle of a river is better than a house on fire”. Of course, the last thing any sane person wants is a fire. Yet in the city of Phnom Penh, in the deadly mix of humid climate, a Rubik’s Cube of entangled buildings, endless traffic jams and a spiderweb of power lines have left ‘many a ruin for the poor boys’. While Cambodian folks live the day, the job of fire-fighting fall squarely on a motley crew. So are the lives of these brave men in red anywhere like the Marvel heroes of Stan Lee? Taing Rinith seeks the answer.
A radio in a car parked in the Ministry of Interior is blaring Nokor Reach, the national anthem of Cambodia, conveying it is 5 in the evening. Many government officials, mostly police officers, call it a day and leave. Yet, for the 20 full-time fire-fighters hanging out in their station, located almost at the centre of the ministry compound, it was barely halfway to their working day to finishing a 24-hour shift.
The “fire-fighting police”, as they have been called since their department is a part of the National Police, are doing the miscellaneous as they are not fighting fire now, So its’s making dinner or BYO from home, petting a dog and two cats which call the station home, playing chess, and chit-chat. Headquarters is a garage-like housing made from steel containers painted in red but no fireman’s pole like on TV. But, the firemen are always ready for their unexpected duty.
Cambodian fire-fighters in training. Supplied
The alarm suddenly went off, which meant a callout coming through. Everyone in the municipal fire-fighting department drop what they are doing and dash for their protective gear, fire hoses and other specialized equipment. Then all of them clamber onto one of the big fire trucks parked in a lot next to the station and head out to a storehouse on fire. By the time they reach the hotspot, a blast was already out of control, so they have to focus on stopping the blaze from spreading and also look for people who need rescue.
Nothing out of the extraordinary for Major Va Sok Theany, who has been putting out fires for more than three decades. In fact, he has seen so much worse.
“In one incident, we had spent more than 24 hours putting out a huge fire gutting a shopping mall,” said the 55-year-old. “Obviously, the job is not easy, but someone needs to do it.”
Yet, his job is still very dangerous. Several times, Theany witnessed his “brother-in-arms” fall into a raging fire or collapse from exhaustion or smoke inhalation, which he described as the tough part of his job. Even harder is the failure to rescue some casualties.
“I can never forget a tragedy a few years ago,” he says. “We were extinguishing a big fire on a house in a borey. There was someone inside.”
“We were setting a ladder to go up and rescue him, but he could not wait. He was so afraid that he decided to jump from the third floor, to his death.”
Theany says he joined the fire fighting unit as a young man because of his dream of making a living from rescuing people. In all these years, he and other fire-fighters in Phnom Penh have saved many structures and lives. It also affects him psychologically since he cannot “stand having even a small fire near him without trying (wanting) to extinguish it”.
However, while his salary hardly goes hand in hand with all the risks he has taken, Theany feels that their hazardous work is much under-appreciated.
“When a big fire breaks out, we prioritise stopping it from spreading rather than putting out the blaze from the house where it started, if we cannot do both at the same time,” Theany says. “Instead, the owners of the house often swear at us and accuse us of taking sides or bribe.”
“They do not understand that we are preventing the fire from destroying other houses in the area, and at the same time protect them from lawsuits.”
Thirty-year-old Ngoun Ratnak Sambath, another fire-fighter in Phnom Penh, sizzles with a similar feeling. Also serving as a fire truck driver, he is often annoyed at nonchalant drivers who block the way, in spite of the screaming siren.
And they still have to scream their way through the busy streets, literally.
“Some drivers stop their vehicles in front of our truck like nothing is happening,” Sambath says with utter disbelief. “I believe they behave like this because it is not their property which is being destroyed.”
When Theany signed up for the fire-fighting unit, Sambath was just born, but like Theany, Sambath became a fire-fighter three years ago, thanks to his “good intention to save and protect the people”.
“In high school, when I saw the articles about fires, I wished I had been there to help them,” Sambath says. “After passing high school exam, without hesitation, I applied for the police and later the Fire-Fighting Department.”
There is not a single day that Sambath’s wife, a young and newly wedded office worker, does not worry about her husband. Sambath, nevertheless, says it is not new to the family of everyone in his team.
“If she loves me, she must also love what I love,” Sambath says. “My love is to stop all the fires that destroy people’s lives, and although I will not be well-known however hard I work, it will not change.”
Both Theany and Sambath claim that the best way that people can assist in their work is to make sure that the fire is controllable when they and their colleagues reach the sites.
“They should have fire extinguishers or a fire safety system in their houses,” Theany explains. “If they think those are expensive, simple tools, such as buckets filled with water, can also help.”
“But, of course, protection is better than a cure. Unlike a business, we are not happy if we have much work to do.”
According to Major General Neth Vantha, Director of the Interior Ministry’s Fire Department, the most frequent causes of fires in Phnom Penh are electrical faults and flammable substances, which accounted for 40 percent and 38 percent, respectively. Meanwhile, only about half of 1.5 million Phnom Penhers have at least one fire extinguisher at home.
As the National High School Exam is approaching, Sambath is calling more youngsters who pass it and do not wish to go to college to follow his path, especially since almost all of his colleagues are on the brink of retirement.
“Yes, it is difficult and could be dangerous, but it is a job that is going to make you live and die with pride,” he says.