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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - To protect and serve (cash welcome)

To protect and serve (cash welcome)

Phnom Penh firemen battle last month's big slum fire in Bassac squatter commune.

THEY would hardly claim to be as popular as the New York Fire Department, and their

long rumored tradition of demanding money to save your house is more reminiscent

of the Sicilian mafia than a 21st century fire service.

The Post went to find out more about Phnom Penh's underpaid and under-equipped men

in yellow.

Phnom Penh has only one fire station. Its collection of eight red trucks sits under

a tin roof on a street that is dusty beyond even this city's usual standard. A well-used

volleyball net out front testifies to long, quiet periods between call-outs.

The station is the preserve of Fire Chief Suon Sopheak and his team of 78 firemen.

Being a fireman, he says, is dangerous and difficult: there is no training school,

which means most firemen learn on the job, and the service suffers from a dire lack

of equipment such as breathing apparatus and decent fire suits. Only six of the station's

fire trucks actually work: the Soviet-era vehicles broke down years ago.

"I joined the fire service in 1994," he says. "I came here because

my boss at the Ministry of Interior gave me two choices. The first was to work as

a special forces policeman, but that scared me because they use guns a lot. The second

was this."

All firemen train as policemen first, Sopheak explains, then request or are instructed

to switch professions. Pay is around $15 a month for the low grades; the chief earns

double that. Every year the men get promotions, and with that a salary rise. But

even with consistent rises they don't earn much. So why does anyone join?

"To help fire victims is an important duty," Sopheak says. "There

is a Khmer proverb that says that it is better that your boat sinks in the river

than you lose your possessions in a fire. The boat can be recovered, but in a fire

you lose everything. So if you can help the people in a fire, they will be very happy."

Happiness, however, is not an emotion many of the city's residents readily associate

with the performance of their fire department. Every blaze brings complaints of corruption,

with assistance seemingly dependent on the amount of money handed over. Sopheak acknowledges

the service has a bad reputation, but maintains that is not their fault.

"A government survey in Phnom Penh found that the people don't understand much

about our work," he says. "When we come to a fire and help them they are

happy, but when we cannot help them and they lose their property they are not. They

blame us saying we work slowly to make a profit, but they don't know how difficult

it is for us."

It is not the fire brigade that is corrupt, explains Sopheak, but the local officials

and police who get there before his men. They take money from desperate residents,

he says, on the promise that the brigade will attend to them first. He claims that

money is never seen by the firemen.

So prevalent are the rumors of corruption, however, that Chief Sopheak admits even

those closest to him think his fire service is corrupt. With three large slum fires,

2001 proved a busy year.

"Take the example of the most recent fires [the slum fires at Bassac commune

and Chhbar Ampoe]. After we came back to the station my friend asked me, 'How much

money did you make?'" says Sopheak. "Even my relatives said this year must

have been a very good one for me."

The tradition of cash up front was common in the West in centuries past. Sun Alliance,

the world's oldest insurance company, started life as a horse-drawn fire service

operating strictly on a fee basis. It was set up after the Great Fire of London in

1666.

It worked this way: London's smarter (and wealthier) householders bought fire insurance

from the company and in return received a metal plaque of the sun to place on the

outside of the house. If there was a fire, the horse-drawn crew would gallop over,

towing the water cart. On arrival they looked for the plaque: if you had one they

went to work; if not, they went home.

Centuries earlier one of ancient Rome's wealthiest men earned a fortune from his

private fire service. He would turn up to the scene of a blaze and offer people a

pittance for their soon-to-be-engulfed houses. For the householders it was a choice

of either selling at a loss or losing everything anyway, so most sold. Only once

he had bought the street would he put out the blaze.

Nowadays that kind of extortion is avoided as governments in most countries pay for

fire services. That requires an effective system for raising revenue, something Cambodia

does not yet have, so it is hardly surprising there are problems.

Corruption, though, is not the only issue: the reality is that the fire service is

woefully under-funded. There is no training school in Cambodia, and protective equipment

is unaffordable.

"When people become firemen in other countries they have to get training first,"

says Sopheak. "In Cambodia we get our training at the fire station. Some of

my staff have proper training; some have got no training at all. They learn from

each other."

"Another problem is that firemen should have good health, be physically strong,

and be smart, but here that is not the case," he says. "So if some of my

staff cannot help themselves, how can they help others?"

Coming soon to a blaze near you: Chief Suon Sopheak, far right, with some of his men and one of his six working fire engines.

To illustrate their woes, Chief Sopheak points to a selection of training photographs

on a pinboard outside his office. One shows his men in smart yellow firesuits tackling

a blazing petrol tank. The training was organized by Caltex; the suits, he laments,

belong to the oil company and were given back at the end of the day.

Meas Lapta joined the brigade in 1992. All the men know their reputation, and all

deny they take money from the people. Lapta claims they have bigger problems.

"When we go to a fire, some police or local people threaten us at gunpoint to

protect their houses," he says. "When that happens, we have no choice.

Of course it is more dangerous at night; at times it feels like we are on a battlefield."

Oeun Sunphai signed up around the same time as Lapta. He says their poor reputation

is undeserved, and echoes Chief Sopheak's claim that local officials are to blame.

Extorting money from desperate people, the firemen agree, runs counter to Buddhist

teachings.

"It is bad to take money from someone in such a situation," says Sunphai.

"Anyone who does that will be hated by their friends."

Driver Ma Chin has worked here for more than 20 years, but has not been paid for

the past two months. To make ends meet he has a second job running a small puncture

repair business near the fire station. That makes him around 5,000 riel a day - less

than a motodup, he admits, but he cannot afford to be too far away from work.

"If we could make money [from corruption] we would be wealthy," Chin says

dismissively. "Sometimes I will get $5 from the people, but they just come and

give me the money. I do not ask for it."

Back in his office, Chief Sopheak acknowledges that sometimes - just occasionally

- money does come their way. On one occasion, he says, a well-known cigarette manufacturer

gave his men several hundred dollars for their help.

Tired of the constant criticisms, Sopheak says he wrote a report to encourage reform

and combat bribery, but that as yet nothing has happened. The higher ranks "don't

care or have not yet decided what to do" about it. Until that happens, Phnom

Penhois will likely regard their firemen more as adventurous Sicilians than honorable

New Yorkers.

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