Sat, 25 Jan 2003

Improving the fire department

"Fire is a good servant but a bad master." This old proverb remains very relevant to Jakarta, which has seen at least three big fires since the New Year that have killed seven people.

The most dramatic fire took place last Sunday in Cakung, East Jakarta, when three people, one of whom was a baby, perished in a fire.

For a populous city like Jakarta, fire hazards are everywhere -- the high-rise buildings and upmarket housing complexes, as well as slum areas that are packed with houses -- and there are many factors that make fire a bad master.

Almost all low-income residential areas, or kampong, in Jakarta, packed with rudimentary houses, reflect no awareness of fire hazards at all. This is quite understandable. How would one think of fire prevention if the makeshift house on a 18-square- meter plot is one's only belonging? For those living in such an area, fire prevention is a very rare and very expensive need.

Unfortunately, the city administration too has poor awareness of fire hazards. Who can guarantee that the hydrants installed in many parts of the city will be operable when a fire breaks out? Do all high-rise buildings have proper fire exits as required by law? There are many such similar lines of questioning.

The administration's poor attention to the fire department reflects its halfhearted alacrity in this issue.

With only Rp 2 billion set aside from the 2002 Jakarta city budget, the fire department cannot do much to repair its damaged or worn-out equipment. The fire department now has 150 old fire engines and 30 ladder trucks. According to Jakarta Fire Department head Johny Pangaribuan, 265 fire trucks are needed to cover a city the size of the capital. Worse still, 15 of the fire trucks are in poor condition, and some of them are no longer operable.

While the fire department has only Rp 2 billion for the maintenance of its equipment, the administration set aside Rp 80 billion for the beautification of The National Monument (Monas) Park. Decision-makers should have better priorities.

More surprising is that 65 percent of a total of 2,000 firefighters are over 45 years old, and 30 percent are over 50, meaning that only 5 percent are of the ideal age of between 20 and 35 years old.

Johny said he could not expect fresh blood to improve the department's human resources when the Jakarta administration had postponed new recruitment in the recent years. "Our personnel are all civil servants recruited by City Hall," he said.

Last year, Johny told journalists that his office received some 200 employees of former government institutions, which were dissolved following the implementation of the Autonomy Law. However, all these new employees are inactive. "Eighty of them are old," Johny said at the time. People over 50 are less adept at heavy labor, like that required of firefighters.

The fire department now has a total of some 2,500 employees, 500 of whom hold administrative jobs. While no data is available for the ideal number of firefighters for a city with a population of 10 million, 2,000 firefighters have so far proved insufficient.

What about the salary? A senior firefighter once said that he received Rp 963,500 per month as a salary, in accordance with his categorization in the civil service, grade II D. A family of four would have to survive on that meager sum, while we hear that the Jakarta governor is to receive Rp 90 million a month for coffee and Rp 65 million for official attire.

Having watched the documentaries on the magnificent job of New York's firefighters on Sept. 11, 2001, we can only be envious and dream of having a more professional fire department.

We have to accept the reality that while hardly any of our children want to be firefighters, many of them dream of becoming soldiers. This shows that firefighters are not popular here, despite their heroism in saving people's lives and battling fires.

So what should the fire department do to improve its professionalism? This is what the city administration has obviously been ignoring for years.

It's time for the city administration to review its stance on fire fighting by making it one of its priorities, at least in its annual budget.

Besides suggesting better welfare for firefighters, it is imperative that the standard requirement for firefighters differ from that of civil servants. To say the least, firefighters should be more physically fit than other civil servants. Firefighters are not employees who sit at their desks or who read newspapers and play chess in their offices from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., like the many civil servants that we commonly see.

Given the responsibility of their tasks, firefighters need basic military training. The city administration must change the recruitment criteria for firefighters, and set aside more funding to hire new, young firefighters immediately and give them the proper training.

Hopefully, in the next decade we will no longer see feeble and slow firefighters, and spare more people from death by fire.