Pakistan: Financial capital’s best protection is good fortune amid shortage of firefighters

A family of five was stuck in the traffic jam on Nov. 14 near Saddar. As the car inched forward, the fire brigade could be seen blocking the road while vehicles were directed down detours. Craning their heads, the family spared a thought for the shops burnt before conversation changed to the dinner party they were running late for.

This is Karachi. The frequency of fires, blasts, muggings and shootings has desensitized the millions that inhabit the city. Being alive and safe is more a matter of luck than protection by municipal resources.

Fire stations and qualifications

“Karachi is Allah key hawale,” says a former municipal official resignedly, speaking about the city’s lack of fire-fighting abilities.

Karachi has only 22 fire stations, of which 20 are fully operational and two are on a shift basis. According to international standards, it should be one fire station per 100,000 people, which brings Karachi’s requirement to roughly 149 (taking the most conservative measure of population of roughly 14 million). Even by the most generous standards, only 20-25% of the city is covered as Karachi spreads vertically and horizontally.

Take Scheme 33 as an example — a huge area of over 26,000 acres commonly known as Gulzar-e-Hijri that stretches from Al Asif Square to New Sabzi Mandi on Northern Bypass. The southern edge of the scheme runs along University Road and touches Gulistan-e-Jauhar while the northern edge is near Gulshan-e-Maymar. And not a single fire station in the vicinity.

The quality of firefighters is another measure where the country is woefully lacking. Internationally, firefighting is a competitive field. Having qualifications such as training as an emergency medical technician and a degree in fire science improves the odds. Here, “those who can’t find a job elsewhere become a fireman,” snorts the official about the roughly 700 firefighters that Karachi has.

Logistics of water

Water is another challenge. While the fire trucks standing at the stations have water, it is only enough for three to four minutes of fire-fighting — 1,800 gallons of high-pressure water cannot last long in the face of raging flames.

The truck has to go back to the station — which are few and far away, as mentioned — and come back with more water and that takes a lot of time, especially when Karachi’s traffic is factored in. Generally, when a high-level fire incident is reported, the water board is alerted to send bowsers so that there is backup water at the scene. But those also get stuck in traffic.

Internationally, the practice is to give way to ambulances and fire trucks, but here there is a lack of basic humane response to make way and let them go forward.

These logistical and water challenges allow fires to increase in intensity even though a fire engine is dispatched from the station within three minutes of the distress call.

Water is not the only way that a fire can be put out, the other alternatives are foam and powder depending on the nature of the fire. A fire engine has two components — three-fourths water and one-fourth foam compound. What combination is used depends on the nature of the fire and the sufficiency of availability of the chemical compounds depends on the number of incidents in the city.

Historical data indicates that the dry winter months increase fire events as clearly evidenced by the recent fires of November.

Causes and no solution

The main cause of fire in the city includes short circuits, especially when generators are made to bear a too-high load and wiring issues. Man-made incidents are also common.

And the cash-strapped city has no money or political will to invest in enhancing firefighting capabilities — a single fire truck snorkel costs around Rs400 million. A snorkel allows firemen to reach higher floors, a necessity as the city’s skyline looms ever higher.

But the onus cannot be on the city administration alone — when high-rise buildings are made, their codes need to account for the possibility of fires and basic facilities such as extinguishers made available.

Karachi clearly does not have the capacity, manpower or resources for fire-fighting. Keeping fingers-crossed seems the only available option.