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In the line of fire

Fire crews put out last month’s blaze at Psar Chas
As Phnom Penh grows up and out, firefighters are under increasing pressure. As the flames rise higher, is the service up to the battle? Fire crews put out last month’s blaze at Psar Chas. Pha Lina

In the line of fire

Phnom Penh is growing up and out, making large scale fires harder to tackle. As the flames rise higher, is the firefighting service ready for the battle?

Firefighter Chen Naroth was heading home a little after 7am, having just finished a 24-hour shift at the fire station on Street 360, when he saw the thick black plume of smoke rising above Riverside. Psar Chas, the Old Market, was ablaze.

Minutes later, after turning his moto around, he was in the back seat of his three-man team’s red fire truck – donated by the Japanese government – wearing his yellow and black firefighting gear – donated by Melbourne’s Metropolitan Fire Service – and saying a quiet prayer for good luck.

“It was a big fire,” the 30-year-old said of the November 25 market blaze during an interview this week at the station. “One of the biggest I’ve fought.”

Naroth, who earns about $120 a month, responded to a call for applications to become firefighters two years ago and underwent three months training – including first aid and basic firefighting techniques.

It was demanding and a little scary at first. “When I first started, I used to get tired holding the hose very quickly,” he said. “But now I’m used to it.”

Russei Keo station
Liv Sengkheang (left), the day chief at the Russei Keo station, with firefighters Khut Som At and Leng Piseth, and Som At’s son Sen Hun Sou. Charlotte Pert

Hand me downs
Phnom Penh has a number of fire fighting services. Some are run by the government but, following encouragement from Prime Minister Hun Sen, some private companies also maintain a small firefighting force as a public service. However, the biggest is the much-maligned Phnom Penh Fire Service, which is nominally operated under the auspices of the Ministry of Interior in cooperation with the Municipality of Phnom Penh.

In the big open-fronted shed at the Street 360 headquarters this week, about a dozen red trucks – from smaller water tankers to big fire engines with ladders that can reach 60m up tall buildings – sat idle, waiting for the klaxon to sound.

The firefighters – who work on 24-hour shifts, one day on then one day off – also spend much of their time parked.

Outside the station’s offices, half a dozen firefighters could be seen shooting the breeze while a few were inside watching television.

The station’s equipment is a grab-bag of hand-me-downs from all over the world – almost all of it donated. Each fire engine bears a plaque or sticker indicating where it came from; China, Japan, the US or Korea. The firefighters’ uniforms bear the logo of Melbourne’s Metropolitan Fire Department. This week, China donated several sets of breathing apparatus.

“Now we have 49 fire trucks with 168 full-time officers who get a lot of training from experts from different countries,” said technical fire office deputy chief Oum Bun Thoeun.

Bun Thoeun is one of the longest-serving veterans of the fire brigade, having joined in 1993. “My late father was a firefighter and I followed in his footsteps,” he said. 

Back then, the fire service only had 10 Soviet-made trucks and less than 30 firefighters for the whole city. 

“There were no traffic jams at that time, not many cars or motorbikes, so our work went smoothly without any obstacles,” he said. “And the fires were not big and difficult to control like today’s [with all the tall buildings and factories].”

Chen Naroth
Chen Naroth, one of the city’s 168 firefighters. Charlotte Pert

Lung problems
Most fires in Phnom Penh are caused by poor electrical wiring, incense sticks and gas stoves, according to Bun Thoeun.

Between January and November, the fire service responded to 70 fires, of which 40 were believed to have been caused by electrical faults – also the cited cause of the Old Market fire. 

While most of city’s fires occur in homes, the most dangerous fires the service encounters are at big factories, which sometimes contain substances which emit toxic smoke when they burn. “Sometimes it takes us two or three days [to put out factory fires],” Bun Thoeun said. 

He said that the government would only compensate firefighters who were injured or died on the job and there was nothing for those who got sick, for example with lung problems caused by smoke inhalation.

He knew veteran firefighters that had become ill or died from lung problems. “Most firefighters have to face lung problems in the future, because this sickness develops easily when they get old.”

Firefighters from the Phnom Penh Fire Service fall in for a morning briefing
Firefighters from the Phnom Penh Fire Service fall in for a morning briefing. Charlotte Pert

Basic capabilities
Phnom Penh’s fire service capabilities are still quite basic, according to Paul Hurford, a former Australian firefighter and managing director of fire fighting training and equipment company Firesafe Cambodia

“They’re quite good at basically just pumping a load of water on the fire until it goes out,” Hurford said. “The basics of firefighting techniques – controlling exposure points and working their way in – they’re quite good at that.”

More advanced techniques have not been learned, he added, and the service struggles with ageing equipment – trucks and breathing apparatus – and poor maintenance.

At the fire station in Keo Russei, 11 of the 14 fire trucks are used so infrequently they are literally gathering dust. But fire truck driver Pich Bou said the vehicles had few issues – in spite of a little rust. “Sometimes the gears are a bit tricky,” he said.

Bou said the traffic on the way to the Old Market was light on the morning of the fire and it only took the trucks about 10 minutes to get there. The scene was chaos when the firefighters arrived with stallholders trying to salvage as much as they could before escaping. 

Along with driving his firetruck – a 17-year-old donation from Korea – Bou is also responsible for directing his teammates and controlling the water flow to the hose. 

Standing next to a panel of levers and gauges on his truck, he explained the tactics used. Their first priority was to aim for the edges of the fire, to stop it from spreading, and then move in to extinguish the heart of the blaze. “If we spray without thought, we could end up just spraying each other.”

The team leader at the Street 360 fire station
The team leader at the Street 360 fire station. Charlotte Pert

Over the years, the fire service has been plagued by accusations that firefighters extort fire victims by refusing to act until they are given substantial sums of money. 

However, Hurford said he had been working in the sector in Cambodia since 2006 and never encountered any proof that a firefighter had demanded cash for service.

It’s a claim the firefighters also strongly deny.

Liv Sengkheang, 48, the day chief at the Russei Keo station, said he had stayed in the job for 21 years because he enjoyed helping people and was upset by accusations that firefighters were corrupt.

“It makes me sad, because we try our best to put the fires out,” he said.

Sometimes grateful people gave the firefighters food and drinks after a fire – and maybe sometimes a little money.

Fire crews put out last month’s blaze at Psar Chas.
Fire crews put out last month’s blaze at Psar Chas. Pha Lina

“But we never ask for anything,” Naroth said. “I think a few bad people in the past may have spoiled it for us. I do firefighting because I want to help people and save their property. I think I’ll always want to keep doing it.”

It took about two hours to put out the fire at the Old Market and about a third of the market stalls were destroyed, but no one was hurt.

Sengkheang and his team were left covered in soot and exhausted after the fire.

When asked if they had a beer to celebrate after a fire, he laughed. “We don’t have enough money for beer,” he said. “We just wash our faces and drink a lot of water.”

Sengkheang said he always felt regret after putting out a fire. “I always wish we could have done more.”

Additional reporting Vandy Muong.

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