Under-resourced, underfunded and much maligned, Phnom Penh's only fire station is
a place where idealism has gone up in smoke.
Phnom Penh Municipal Fire Chief Suon Sopheak stands before one of the eight engines that his 75-member fire-fighting corps has to battle all the blazes that occur across Phnom Penh.
The station, in Chamkarmon district, is the realm of Phnom Penh Municipal Fire Chief
Suon Sopheak and his 75 firefighters, who serve the capital's 76 communes - about
1.5 million residents.
Sopheak, 59, sits at his desk in a spartan office. Behind him hangs a Japanese lithograph
detailing the famous ladder-climbing acrobats of the Japanese fire service. Japan,
like many countries, holds its firefighters in great esteem, but there is little
of that in Phnom Penh.
According to Sopheak, it is a tough, dangerous job, with long shifts, little pay,
and often little thanks.
"People don't understand our work and don't respect or acknowledge us,"
"This makes it hard. They don't understand there's a method to fire fighting
and if we don't succeed they blame us and say we were waiting for payment. And then
when we do succeed, they say it's because the people paid us."
On a recent day in Tuol Kok district the talk of corruption in the fire service is
rife. On February 2 a blaze in Boeng Salang commune's Psar Dumkor village burned
52 wooden homes to the ground, leaving 129 families homeless.
The residents now live under blue tarps stretched between charred wooden poles, with
the few possessions they have left scattered on blankets. The village is a mess of
charred wood, twisted metal and burnt bricks. It's hot and dirty, but in the hopelessness
there's resilience, and a quiet fury.
Hoa Phally, 32, sits with her four-month-old baby, covered in soot. When the fire
started behind her home she fled with her two children. But her neighbors managed
to save some of the goods she sold from her small stall by throwing them into the
She said her 13-year-old daughter cried to the firemen to spray water on their house.
"They told her they would do so, but they didn't. Not until our homes were burned,"
she said. "The fire workers don't spray water on wooden houses because they
know the people have no money to pay them. They save the water for brick and concrete
homes because these people have money."
Ngim Sok, 31, said the fire fighters arrived in good time but waited for more than
an hour before spraying water. "When they arrived the fire was still far away,
but they did nothing," he said. "Two trucks got stuck in the road but they
still had hoses and the hoses were full but they did not spray the water. They only
sprayed it on the trucks to protect them."
He said he tried to take a hose from a fire truck and spray water on their homes
but the firefighters wouldn't let him. "They took it from me and then later
used it to spray water on one of the brick houses," he said.
Around the corner, Street 336 is lined with businesses and apartments. Many are burnt
out, or have suffered major smoke and heat damage. One owner said the fire sparked
more than 100 meters from his home and when the firefighters arrived it was still
some distance off.
"If they'd sprayed water it would never have come near these houses," he
said. "But they just stood there and waited."
He said the firemen told him they did not have any water left in their truck. As
the fire burnt closer he offered them $500, but still they did nothing. Then he went
to one firefighter who held a hose and gave him $100. The fireman handed him the
hose and he trained it on his home and adjacent buildings. But then the water stopped.
"They turned off the tap, so I went back to the worker and gave him another
$100. And the water started again. I had to do this five times," he said.
In this way he managed to save much of his home. Further down the street people were
not so lucky. Residents here said the firemen wanted $1,000 but they only had $500.
Their business burnt out.
At the fire station, Sopheak smiles when asked about the residents' claims. "I
don't know if fire workers took money at that fire," he said. "It's just
become a habit, this rumor we take money from the people, but when people make a
complaint they can never say who got the money and if they do it's always somebody
who's not in a fire worker's uniform."
Sopheak said six trucks were sent to the blaze and two became stuck in one of the
narrow access roads. "It was a difficult fire to fight and the fire workers
tried their best," he said. "Sometimes we don't throw water from some directions
because it depends on the wind. You must hose the fire with the wind."
Sopheak said because the fire service does not have enough workers this can cause
confusion. "Each truck only has three workers so sometimes the people help with
the fire fighting and they take the hoses and water their homes," he said. "But
I don't know for sure if people paid money at that fire."
A former police chief, Sopheak was appointed fire chief in 1993 at the end of the
"I had no choice," he said. "I was told by the Ministry of Interior
to become fire chief and so I did."
The majority of the firefighters began work in 1993 and like Sopheak they were all
appointed from positions within the police department. The fire service has received
few reinforcements since and many of the firefighters are in their fifties.
The service is funded through the Ministry of Interior and receives donations and
aid from the Fire Equipment and Safety Center of Japan, American nonprofit organization
Outreach Emergency Services Program, as well as the governments of Japan and China.
But despite billions of dollars of international investment and aid to Cambodia,
the fire fighters remain under-funded, under-resourced and the ever-present stench
of corruption has not dispersed.
Originally operating with antiquated Russian trucks, Sopheak's men - and five women
- received six new trucks in 1994. Each truck carries around 4,000 liters of water
and on average about three trucks are required to douse a blaze on a freestanding
house. With the addition of two new trucks in recent years - including one from the
United States with a ladder - the service now has eight. Not nearly enough to fight
all the fires in Phnom Penh.
"The municipality had a plan to purchase more trucks but now that's on hold
because I hear China will donate thirty new trucks to the city," Sopheak said.
"But I'm not sure when this will happen."
When or if this happens, Sopheak said the service would expand into three stations,
with a new substation in the city's north and one in Chbar Ampov in the south.
But for now, Sopheak battles on with his aging trucks and aging workers.
Last year, the service responded to about 40 fires, a slight decrease from 2005,
but Sopheak said the beginning of 2007 had been particularly bad. He couldn't give
exact figures as these are calculated every three months, but said there had been
"a lot." Most he said were caused by electrical faults and burning incense.
The firefighters operate in two teams on rotating shifts, which begin at 7.30 am
and end 24 hours later when the replacement team arrives. "We have enough people
on each shift to put three on a truck," Sopheak said. "But a fire truck
needs five people. I've asked the police chief for 48 more people and he agrees but
I don't know when that will happen."
Occasionally the firefighters receive training from Canadian and American specialists,
but most of their skills have been learned on the job. And on the job they work with
only 30 sets of secondhand protective gear donated from the US. "We can wear
the jackets but not the pants," Sopheak said. "American firefighters are
big but Cambodians are small, so they don't fit."
The firefighters are paid from 90,000 to 150,000 riel a month ($22 to $37), depending
on their rank - a typical salary for a civil servant in Phnom Penh, but not enough
to support a family. Sopheak believes the low pay leads to the ever-present rumors
Sopheak said he doesn't know if the firefighters receive money from the people. He
did not deny that at fires money is sometimes exchanged, but said it was not the
firefighters who demanded it but the local police or other officials.
"I don't understand why this rumor persists," he said. "The people
themselves say they want to work for the government or customs or some kind of official
job because they know they will get more money. There is much corruption in Cambodia
but still people only talk about corruption in the fire service."
Sopheak said the fire service has a policy not to ask for money but people sometimes
show their gratitude after the fire is extinguished and give them food and water
- and sometimes a little money too. "But we don't ask," he said.