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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Firefighters fiddle as Phnom Penh burns

Firefighters fiddle as Phnom Penh burns

With the onset of the dry season, the risk of house and building fires dramatically

increases. Samreth Sopha looks at the state of firefighting in Phnom Penh

and realizes how lucky he is to live in a concrete house.

Firefighters tackle a recent blaze in Toul Kork that destroyed 15 homes.

The key to successfully surviving a house fire in Phnom Penh lies primarily with

the victims.

Some simple rules dramatically increase survival chances. The first: don't have a

fire between 11am and 1pm or 5pm and 7pm because the firefighters are not available

during meal breaks, says their chief.

The second: have substantial amounts of cash to hand out because the firefighters

don't put out fires unless paid, say past victims.

And finally: try to live near Wat Phnom or the Ministry of Interior because they

are the only two places where fire engines have 24- hour access to water.

However the Phnom Penh Fire Department does have skills other than those traditionally

associated with rescue services.

For example, demonstrators at democracy square last year could vouch that the department's

equipment - particularly the water cannons - are in first class working order, and

that staff seem conversant with their use.

Phnom Penh Fire Department's reputation is such that many fires are dealt with by

local volunteers rather than by calling in the professional firefighters.

Official statistics for last year recorded only 39 fires in all of Phnom Penh. This

number was derived from the number of times that the brigade was called out.

Suon Sopheak, chief of Phnom Penh's firefighters said that of those 39 fires, 11

were classified as big - defined as involving more than 10 houses, five were medium,

involving up to 10 houses and 23 were small which referred to sheds or small buildings.

The number of fires was small but the cost was huge - five fatalities and 16

injured; 2 hotels, 339 houses and 2 cars destroyed and $850,000 worth of property


Firefighters blamed careless and incorrect electrical connections and an increase

in small home businesses and factories for many of the fires.

Already this year there have been several extensive fires, and again the victims

have complained of extortion and incompetence.

On Feb 10, 15 houses in Toul Kork were destroyed by fire. The police said it was

started by a gas stove, but according to victims the cause was arson. No-one was

injured, but few of the victims managed to save any of their possessions from the


On Feb 14, a midnight apartment fire killed two children aged 10 and 11 and a 64-year-old

woman. Authorities put the fire down to carelessness on the part of the householder.

On February 22, a furniture warehouse was destroyed but the fire's cause was unknown.

A number of victims of the Tuol Kork fire complained that firefighters were late,

deliberately let fire spread and then demanded thousands of dollars to put it out.

One of the victims, Seng Hour, 40, a maker of wooden furniture said his house could

have been saved if the fire engines had been better utilized.

"When the fire started it destroyed only two houses. Four fire engines came

and sprayed water, the fire diminished a little but then the engines went off to

get more water and during the half hour they were away the fire flared up again and

spread," he said.

A similar complaint came from another victim, Heng Seng Horn, 33, who now lives under

a blue plastic sheet near the ashes of his house.

He said many people were upset about the amount of time the fire engines were away

from the scene filling up with water.

But what made him more angry was the way the fire engine crews suddenly stopped fighting

the fire in their area and went off to another site during which the blaze got worse.

He said he saw people whose houses were threatened paying money to those fire fighters.

"Some people whose houses were not yet on fire were worried it would spread

to theirs, so they gave the money to the firemen so that they sprayed water [on their

houses]," he said.

Another victim, the owner of a wood depot in the area, said she paid the firefighters,

but they wanted more money. Eventually, the firefighters left her house and business

to burn.

The woman, who requested anonymity said that she had lost everything in the fire.

"I gave them $4000, to spray water to protect my house but they asked for more.

She said she had no more money, so the firefighters "never protected my house

and left it to be destroyed".

She said if the firefighters had turned up on time and taken immediate action, the

fire would have been a small matter. Instead, people lost everything they owned.

"Fire victims depend on the fire engines, but the fire engines did not help


"It is like we are drowning in water. Instead of rescuing us they push us under,"

she said.

The woman had a simple solution for fixing the fire department's problems.

"If the fire department behaves in this manner it [fire fighting] should be

transferred to a private company and they could get money if they guaranteed our

houses would not be destroyed," she said.

She estimated the fire had destroyed $20,000 worth of personal belongings.

The biggest loser financially from the recent spate of fires seemed to be the Leang

Hong office furniture company.

Company vice director Siv Leng said the Feb 22 blaze destroyed his warehouse which

had stock worth about $285,000 inside.

Sopheak acknowledged there had been problems and hoped that some restructuring could

sort them out.

He said there were currently 13 fire engines and 97 firemen stationed at Phnom Penh

Fire Station which he did not think was a good idea.

Instead of the one central station he wanted to see seven fire stations spread out

throughout the city to enable fire engines get to fires faster.

Sopheak denied that all the problems with the fire department were their own fault.

Suon Sopheak, city Fire Chief

He said the water department had put 19 hydrants throughout the city but they did

not always work, particularly in the evening when the water department's power supply

was erratic.

He also said complaints about the length of time it took for the Fire Department

to arrive could often be traced back to people giving insufficient information about

where the fire actually was.

But in terms of specific criticisms of the department's practices and procedure,

Sopheak did admit that there were some problems such as if a fire call came during

meal times.

"Whenever a fire happens within this period, we have difficulty finding them

[the firefighters]," he said.

However he denied that his staff ever extorted money from victims.

"I was appointed as the chief of the fire unit since 1994, and I have heard

this, I wish to clarify that I have never seen it, I have never got anything from

the people," he said.

He added that he thought the accusations of extortion might be due to "middle-men"

taking advantage of victims' fears and saying they could make the arrangements with

the firefighters to protect their property.

He also believed that there was some misunderstanding of the techniques of fighting

fires such as what happened at Tuol Kork.

"When the blaze was very big, we could not put it out.

"Our fire engine's [water canon] range is from 25-30 meters so we have to find

a convenient place to defeat the blaze.

"It made the people wonder why the fire engines sprayed water at the place where

the firefighters were [accused of being] given the money, but they did not know that

we were getting downstream of the wind," he said.

The Fire Department is keen to improve its service. Sopheak said that they need new

equipment such as fire engines with bigger water tanks and ladder trucks that would

enable them to reach the fourth story on buildings.

He is also pushing hard with a decentralization plan and has found some support from

the Phnom Penh municipality.

Chea Sophara, First Deputy Mayor of Phnom Penh, said they were willing to assist

with the creation of new fire stations and were already seeking help from international

donors to provide new equipment.

He added that a Japanese delegation visited Phnom Penh last month to discus fire

protection and help was requested then.

"The proposal has already been submitted to the Japanese, and it is being considered,"

he said.

Japan has in the past donated seven fire engines to the Phnom Penh Fire Department.




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