The severe staff crunch in the Delhi Fire Service (DFS) makes the national capital incapable of dealing with sudden emergencies, even as firefighters are made to risk their lives in hazardous conditions by using outdated equipment.
The dearth of staff has hit the DFS hard over the last three-four years in particular. As a fire operator stationed in east Delhi complained, “Not one fire operator has been recruited in our fire station since 2012. A minimum of six-seven people should be available for one fire engine, but at present we have only four firefighters.”
Manoj Kumar Sharma, additional divisional officer, DFS Headquarters, said, “At present, we are operating with a 40-50% staff strength. Various positions need to be filled immediately. But we need qualified personnel. We possibly cannot hire just about anyone to drive a fire engine on the city’s roads.”
According to DFS director A.K. Sharma, “The shortage of staff is because of the constant delay in the recruitment process. The positions that are vacant are the ones to be filled through UPSC (Union Public Service Commission) and DSSSB (Delhi Subordinate Services Selection Board). We have been writing to them and requesting to pay attention to the matter, but there has not been a positive response.”
A persistent complaint is that the administrative staff in a fire office outnumbers the firefighters.
In the DFS headquarters, Ramji Lal Meena, head constable, assured this newspaper, “A staff shortage does not mean that we let our work suffer. Yes, efficiency will improve if there are more skilled hands but we do our work with complete dedication. We hold our job in high esteem.”
According to Meena, the equipment available at the DFS headquarters are in good condition: “The technology is not a problem here. Fire brigades are well equipped. But yes, there is better and advanced firefighting technology available, so there is always room for improvement. For example, most of us here are good divers, but still the availability of oxygen cylinders would make our work more efficient.” However, his optimism is not shared by the fire operators in the east zone. “Our equipment is ancient. Our masks are obsolete. We work amid thick smoke and often in the dark. The masks we have are meant to protect us, but the glasses in front are so old that seeing through them is a challenge. I cannot remember the last time we were given new equipment or better uniforms,” said a firefighter on the condition of anonymity.
Another fireman said, “We have fire trucks that are in working condition but their size becomes a drawback when we have an emergency in an area which is a maze of narrow lanes.” “DFS has some of the best fire brigades in the country that are worth crores. But they are rarely used because they don’t meet our specific requirements. Our equipment should be such that it helps us fight fire effectively. It is not feasible to take a huge fire truck in a congested slum area.”
At present there are 57 fire stations in the capital and over 100 fire brigades.
“Firefighting is not a matter of joke. Fire officers work for 36 hours at a stretch, after which they get a break of 24 hours. The risk to life is huge. But the Sixth Pay Commission (2006-2008) discontinued the small amount of money, Rs 450 that we were getting as ‘risk allowance’. The risk allowance should be increased by three times at least and brought back,” said a firefighter on the condition of anonymity.
A Delhi firefighter with 19 years of experience said that he was earning Rs 45,000 a month. Another one complained of the lack of promotions. “There is a possibility that I might retire without a single promotion in my whole work span,” he said.
When asked, the director, Manoj Kumar Sharma explained, “Yes the promotion rate is low, but we cannot promote a person just because he has been in the service for 10 years. Even though promotion is rare among fire operators, they do not suffer financially. Their pay scale increases every 10 years irrespective of their years of work.” “DFS firefighters are drawing the best salaries possible among the whole fire community in the country,” he added.
Residents too make the firefighter’s job difficult, as Meena pointed out, “Traffic jams are the true enemy to our work. People don’t bother to make way for us. A fire can gobble up a whole house we stay stuck in a traffic jam. People must understand that their stubbornness on the roads can cost on one’s life.”
The lack of public awareness and immense carelessness on the part of the people contribute to the maximum number of fire incidents. “Overloading, loose wiring, hanging banners on electric wires, LPG leakage are top domestic fire breakout factors. Apart from this the illegal establishments where people use chemicals etc., make it difficult for us to control the fire, as we do not know what was being stored inside the building,” he added.