Firefighting – a thankless vocation but indispensable
October 3, 2022 / Khmer Times
A radio in a car parked in the Ministry of Interior played Nokor Reach, the national anthem of Cambodia, conveying it is five in the afternoon. Many governmental officials, mostly police officers, call it a day and leave their offices.
Yet, for the 20 full-time firefighters in their station at the centre of the ministry’s compound, it was barely halfway through their working day. There were still many hours to go before they finish their 24-hour shift.
The “fire-fighting police”, as they are called since their department is a part of the national police, are keeping occupied with various daily past time: preparing for dinner with all the food they have bought or brought from home, tending to a dog and two cats which they raised at the station, playing chess, and chitchatting.
The men are always ready for the unexpected call to duty.
Their station is a garage-like housing painted in red and without a fireman’s pole, as what is usually seen in movies or on TV.
The alarm suddenly goes off, which meant a callout came through. All members of the station cease what they were doing and spring into action.
They quickly run for their protective equipment, fire hoses and other specialized equipment and clamber onto one of the big fire trucks parked in a lot next to the station.
With siren blaring they head out, speeding to the fire. They prepare themselves for what lies ahead. The information given was a storehouse was on fire.
When they reached the site, the blaze was out of control. Their focus was then on preventing it from spreading and seeing if there were people who needed to be rescued.
In the heat of things, fireman Major Va Sok Theany remains cool.
In the past three decades fighting a fire, he has seen much worse.
“In one incident, we took more than 24 hours putting out a huge fire gutting a shopping mall,” says the 55-year-old. “The job is not easy, but someone has to do it.”
Firefighting has more than its fair share of danger. Theany has witnessed his “brother-in-arms” fall into the raging fire or collapse from exhaustion or smoke inhalation, which he described as the hard part of the job.
But what is difficult to come to terms with were failures to rescue casualties or victims.
“I never forget a tragedy a few years ago. We were extinguishing a big fire in 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. He fell to his death,” Theany recalls.
Theany joined the fire fighting unit as a young man because of his dream to make a living from rescuing people.
In all the years since then, Theany and other firefighters in Phnom Penh have saved many structures and lives. Since then fire has come to affect him psychologically as he now cannot “stand having even a small fire near him without trying to extinguish it”.
Theany, however, feels somewhat let down. Not only do firemen’s salaries not commensurate with the risk and dangers they face, Theany feels that their hazardous work is much underappreciated. “When a big fire breaks out, we prioritise stopping it from spreading rather than putting out the blaze from the house where it starts, if we cannot do both at the same time.
“When we choose to stop the fire from spreading, the house owner will curse us for not saving his house and accuse us of taking sides or bribes.
“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,” he says
There is a Khmer proverb that sums this up: “A sinking boat in the middle of a river is better than a house on fire”.
Of course, the last thing people with a stable mind wants is a fire, yet in the city of Phnom Penh, the combination of humid climate, tangled building clusters, frequent traffic jams and hazardous electric power systems have caused hundreds of disastrous occurrences every year.
While the Cambodian people lack knowledge about fires and the knowledge and equipment needed for fire prevention, the responsibility to combat fire falls almost entirely on firefighters who are recruited by the government.
Ngoun Ratnak Sambath is a 30-year-old firefighter in Phnom Penh and drives a fire truck. He is often annoyed by motorists who block the way, despite the screaming siren.
“Some drivers stop their vehicles in front of our truck like nothing is happening.
“I believe they behave like this because it is not their property which is being destroyed,” Sambath says.
When Theany signed up for the fire-fighting unit, Sambath had just been born, but like Theany, Sambath became a firefighter three years ago because he wanted to save and protect the people”.
“In high school, when I saw the articles about fire incidents, I wished I had been there to help them.
“After passing high school exam and without any hesitation, I joined the police force and three years ago, I joined the Firefighting Department,” he says.
There is not a single day that Sambath’s wife, and newly married to the fireman, does not worry about her husband.
“The families of all firemen have this same worry.
“If my wife loves me, she must also love what I love.
“My love is to destroy all the fires that want to destroy people’s lives, and although I will not be well-known however hard I work, my drive will not change,” he adds.
Both Theany and Sambath claim that the best way that people can assist in their firefighting work is to make sure that the fire is controllable before firemen reach the site.
They believe people will be better off if they have fire extinguishers or a fire safety system in their houses but if such equipment is beyond financial reach, simple tools, such as buckets filled with water, can help.
“Protection is better than a cure,” they say.
With the National High School Exam around the corner, Sambath urges students who passes the exams but do not wish to further their education to be a firefighter.
“Many of my colleagues are at the brink of retirement.
“Yes, it is difficult and it can be dangerous, but it is a job that is going to make you live and die with pride,” he says.
Only about half of the 1.5 million homes in Phnom Penh have a fire extinguisher in the house.