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Sar Kheng orders halt to fire profiteering

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Firefighters put out a blaze in Phnom Penh’s Chbar Ampov district in December last year. Hean Rangsey

Sar Kheng orders halt to fire profiteering

Minister of Interior Sar Kheng has instructed Phnom Penh municipal and provincial authorities to scrutinise their fire department’s conduct with a renewed focus on eliminating the practice of charging fire victims money before putting out the fire.

Sar Kheng addressed the issue while presiding over the 15th World Day of Remembrance for Road Traffic Victims in Kandal province on February 2.

The minister said he had received reports that in some cases when a fire broke out and people called for help, the fire trucks did not get close enough to spray water to extinguish the fire, claiming that the area was hard to access.

“In a recent case they arrived and they got the truck close enough . . . but did not spray any water because they were still negotiating a price with the victims.

“This is just wrong. The authorities who allowed that to happen were wrong. The firefighters who did it were wrong. So everyone, especially those in urban areas and towns, needs to put a stop to this practice.

“The fire engines are state-owned vehicles running on petrol the state paid for and you all get your salaries from the state,” he said.

Sar Kheng said while he acknowledged that fire officers’ salary is on the low-end, they cannot just ignore their mission or erode the public trust by treating the fire department’s services like it was their own private business to run at a profit.

He said the ministry understands that maybe there should be an incentive or bonus policy to help motivate them.

“So, all municipal and provincial authorities need to look into this issue and address it – and do not let it happen again,” he emphasised.

“We are willing to add allowances or bonuses on a case by case basis, but do not charge people. How can they be expected to haggle with you when they’ve just escaped the fire and their house is burning down right there in front of them? And bargaining for this or that amount to put out the fire is just adding to their burdens.

“Where do you suppose they can get the money to pay you? Their money is on fire,” Sar Kheng said.

Neth Vantha, director of the National Police’s Fire Prevention Department, said on February 2 that his department will follow the minister’s recommendations and take whatever actions necessary to prevent any further irregularities in the provision of fire extinguishing services to the public.

“We will implement the minister’s instructions and take strict measures against any fire prevention officer – especially in the capital-provincial fire extinguishing units – who engage in this practice and we will strictly monitor the authority’s performance when a fire occurs to ensure this doesn’t happen,” he said.

According to the Fire Prevention Department’s report, there were 937 fires in 2020, killing 24 people and injuring 36 others.

By comparison, 2019 had only 220 fires. Over the course of 2020 there were 707 households and 594 market stalls – along with many other properties – that were damaged by fires.

The report also said that more than 37 per cent of these fires were caused by electrical explosions and more than 32 per cent were due to negligence. Nearly 30 per cent were still under investigation.

Affiliated Network for Social Accountability executive director San Chey observed that the overall fire prevention situation in the capital and provinces was bad and there were many individuals at fault over the years from both the police and military.

He said that even when victims paid the firefighters the results were never great.

“We see that the government mechanisms for responding to fires still have a lot of problems which need to be addressed. The firefighters need to stop telling victims that they need to pay money to get fire rescue services because the law certainly doesn’t require nor even suggest that the victim pay them any money,” Chey said.

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