Tragedy of fires: Death and destruction in the Philippines

In Photo: Residents sift through the debris following an overnight fire that razed an informal settlers’ commnity by the Pasig River in Cainta, Rizal, on January 18, 2013.

FOUR years ago, Waterfront Philippines Inc. (WPI) began renovating the historic Manila Pavilion. Last year WPI President Kenneth T. Gatchalian told reporters the company put in new plumbing and technology in the hotel the company bought in 2004.

Last week, WPI’s investment went up in flames as a fire gutted the Manila Waterfront Hotel and led to the death of five people and several injuries to more than a dozen.

A well-known adage may be what Gatchalian and WPI executives remember these days: “It is better to be a victim of theft 10 times than to be a victim to fire.”

This well-known saying, perhaps a conviction, is based on personal experiences of many Filipinos who had suffered from disastrous and tragic fires.

In the Philippines, thousands of lives and billions worth of property are lost every year because of seemingly inescapable fires, often caused by negligence and sheer apathy of its consequences.

Authorities, to note, have yet to reveal if these were in the case of the Manila Waterfront Hotel blaze.

Disastrous fires

THE Philippines continues to experience disastrous fires, often marking some of the worst fire incidents in history.

On May 13, 2015, a fire broke out at the Kentex Manufacturing factory in Valenzuela City, wherein 74 people were killed after being trapped inside the burning shoes-and-slippers factory.

It is the third worst fire incident in the Philippines after the 1996 Ozone Disco Club fire that killed 162 and the 2001 Manor Hotel fire that led to the death of 75 people.

In all three cases, buildings were totally burned or destroyed, huge amounts of investment went up in smoke in a matter of hours and those who were lucky enough to escape and survive suffered the tragedy of losing their jobs, their source of income and livelihood.

Fast forward to the present-day scenario, the Philippines remains washed up in fighting fire, if not preventing it from happening.

Risky business

FIREFIGHTING is a very risky business.

But Filipino firefighters are among the bravest in battling blazes. Despite lacking in firefighting equipment, they are known to charge toward burning buildings while others scamper for safety. Sometimes, firefighters themselves are seriously injured, or killed, while doing their jobs. This seldom happens, thanks to proper training.

The Bureau of Fire Protection (BFP), the primary agency responsible for fire prevention and fighting fire, is one of the most undermanned government agencies created for the gargantuan task of preventing fire, if not fighting fires when they do happen.

The BFP’s annual appropriations also fall beyond what can be described as “desirable”.

In 2017, total new appropriations for the BFP is slightly less than P13 million.

The majority of this budget, about P11 million, is for personnel services, meaning salary and allowances of its personnel. The BFP’s funds last year also went to maintenance and other operating expenses (P1.5 million). Only P543,606 was set aside as capital outlay.

The budget was for the 24,095 men and women of the BFP.

Of this total number of personnel, 1,086 are officers with the rank of Fire Inspector up to Director. Non-uniformed personnel, those who perform clerical or office-based duties, numbered to about 416.

Often, only those with the rank ranging from Fire Officer (FO) 1 to Senior FO 4, numbering 22,593, are out in the field. Some officers are known to still “volunteer” and help out in actual fire-fighting activities.

But not all of them are allowed to fight fire as each battle requires each of them to wear complete gear, which is not available at all times.

Resource-deficient

THE BFP is doubly short.

It is short of firefighters, with the ideal ratio of 1 firefighter per 2,000 people or population. The BFP is also short of all-important fire trucks and other firefighting equipment.

With its current population running up to 100 million, the Philippines needs at least 50,000 personnel doing actual firefighting on the field. Hence, the actual number of firefighters is short by more than 100 percent.

Moreover, considering the vastness of the territory that requires firefighting, the BFP is short of fire stations, fire trucks, fire hoses, nozzles and breathing apparatus that could boost or enhance the BFP’s fire-fighting capability.

Currently, there are 2,245 fire trucks nationwide, but only 1,958, or 87 percent, are serviceable or in working condition. Only nearly 163 are classified as unserviceable and 124 are “under repair.”

The BFP is also short of “serviceable” fire hoses and nozzles.

Ideally, the BFP should have 31,430 fire hoses, but based on the latest inventory, only 24,245 hoses are serviceable, leaving a shortage of 7,185 fire hoses. The ideal number of fire nozzles is 8,980, but the number of serviceable fire nozzles is 5,876, short of 3,104 units.

A total of 8,980 sets of self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA) is the ideal number for the BFP. But the BFP only has 1,938 SCBA units, short of 7,042.

Less ideal

BFP Superintendent Joanne E. Vallejo told the BusinessMirror every city and municipality should have one fire truck.

As mandated by law, there should be one fire truck per city and municipality, according to Vallejo.

“We only have 2,343 fire trucks owned by the BFP and we also have 446 fire trucks owned by the LGUs,” she said. “So we have a total of 2,749 fire trucks nationwide.”

Vallejo added the ideal ratio is 1 fire truck for every 28,000 persons.

Every fire truck should also have 14 firefighters, according to Vallejo, the designated spokesman of BFP Chief Director Leonard R. Banago.

“The ideal ratio for every firefighter is 2,000 persons,” she said. “So far, we are short of 376 activated fire stations. But not all our activated fire stations have their own fire trucks.”

According to Vallejo, it also takes time to have a fire truck repaired because of the procurement law. The former fire marshal of Cauayan, Isabela, added that sometimes it takes at least six months to be able to request for a fund to become available and for fixing fire trucks.

Added Fire Inspector Gabriel G. Solano, the BFP also finds it hard to schedule fire-truck repair because of a lack of qualified contractors.

“Not all shops can fix a fire truck. A fire truck is no ordinary truck,” said Solano, chief of the Material Production and Development Section of the Fire Safety Information Division of the BFP. “It requires special skills to fix fire trucks.”

‘Homeless’ firefighters

AS of December 31, 2017, there are only a total of 145 fire stations in 81 provinces across the country. This number is the minimum requirement under the Fire Code of the Philippines.

Fire stations are a firefighter’s “home away from home.” There they are often required to stay overnight or are assigned on night shifts to ensure fire stations are not without a firefighter 24 hours a day.

Of the 145 fire stations for cities, 51 are BFP-owned while 94 are owned by local government units (LGUs), by private individuals or institutions or other agencies.

For the 1,489 municipalities across the 17 regions in the Philippines, there are only 1,113 activated fire stations for a total of 1,489 municipalities. This leaves a total of 376 municipalities without activated fire stations.

Of the 1,113 fire stations, 597 are owned by the BFP while 516 are owned by the LGUs, private individuals or institutions or other agencies.

‘Landless’ stations

ACCORDING to Vallejo, some municipalities still have no fire stations of their own as the BFP has no land to construct the station. The BFP, she said, is not allowed to purchase land for such purpose.

Because of that, she said the BFP relies on the generosity of the LGUs to donate the land where a fire station can be constructed.

She said it will only take the BFP to request for the fund and start construction of a fire station once a deed of donation is presented by the LGU.

Many fire stations in cities and municipalities continue to exist because the buildings are owned and maintained by LGUs, private individuals or institutions or other government agencies.

“It is quite sad that those with fire stations are getting more of what they need than those [LGUs] with no fire stations of their own because of the land problem,” Vallejo said. “Sometimes, those with fire stations get donations for fire trucks because they already have a fire station while those with no fire stations have none.”

Response time

TO cope with the shortage of activated fire stations and fire trucks, Solano said the agency’s practice is to cluster municipalities with no activated fire stations to a municipality with the nearest town with an activated fire station.

He explained that technically when a fire station is not activated, there are still municipal fire prevention officers and firefighters assigned to the area, but are attached to a mother unit.

“The municipal fire prevention officer reports to the mother unit, which is usually the fire station located in another but closely situated municipality,” Solano said.

The distance of a clustered municipality with no activated fire station should be within a 15-meter radius from a nearby activated fire station, he added.

This is to meet the ideal response time of 5 minutes to 7 minutes from the time a fire incident is reported to the fire station.

But Vallejo said such ideal response time is not always met often because of a number of factors. Some of these include traffic congestion, obstruction of roads and narrow streets a fire truck needs to navigate to reach the target the area.

Prevention month

MARCH was designated as Fire Prevention Month by virtue of Presidential Proclamation 115-A s. 1966 signed on November 17, 1966, by then President Ferdinand E. Marcos, who cited an increase in fire incidents happening across the country during this month.

It is during the month that the most number of fires occurs.

More than half a century or 52 years later, has the Philippines learned its lessons? Not quite.

According to the BFP, from March 1 to 16, a total of 633 fire incidents were recorded nationwide. This is lower by 271, or 30 percent, compared to the 904 recorded fires during the same period last year.

The number of fires that broke out in the first half of the month had so far claimed the lives of 9 people and caused injuries to a total of 31 others. Last year, a total of 10 people died during the period, with 36 others suffering from fire-related injuries.

The fire that broke out at the Manila Waterfront Hotel on March 18 has claimed about three lives and injured about 19.

According to the BFP, in the first two weeks of Fire Prevention Month this year, an estimated P35 million worth of property was lost, much lower compared to the P135 million estimated damage to property last year.

Daily incidents

FROM 2013 to 2017, the BFP recorded a total of 77,724 fire incidents, or an average of 15,545 fire incidents every year or 42 fire incidents a day.

During the period, the total estimated damage to property reached P23.273 billion or an average of P4.65 billion every year.

Also during the period, 1,257 people were killed or an average of 251 deaths every year.

The number of injured persons during the five-year period reached 4,239, or an average of 848 persons suffering from fire-related injuries that could have been avoided.

According to the BFP, the top three causes of fires are electrical connection, lighted cigarette butt and open flame.

Fire originating from electrical connections may either be triggered by electrical overload, electrical arc or electrical short circuit.

Lighted cigarette butts that caused fires are those usually indiscriminately thrown away by cigarette smokers, accidentally touching flammable material that starts a fire.

Fires caused by open flames can either be triggered by torch, candle or burning gas stove left unattended.

The top three fire occurrences recorded hit residential areas, industrial and mercantile or commercial buildings.

‘Human failure’

DESCRIBING the problem as deeply rooted in attitude, Vallejo said people need to learn to be aware and conscious of the consequences of negligence that may lead to a disastrous fire.

She explained a lot of fire incidents could have been avoided if only people will be more cautious of the things they do.

For instance, she said indiscriminately throwing a lighted cigarette butt, sleeping and leaving a lighted candle or forgetting to turn off a gas stove after cooking are the most common causes of fires.

Solano said this is also the reason most fire incidents in recent years are in residential areas, or higher than in industrial or commercial areas.

“We noticed that as we conducted information campaigns and tightened our inspection in industrial or commercial buildings, the number of fires involving the type of occupancy went down in recent years,” he noted. “Fire incidents in residential areas, on the other hand, appear to have overtaken that of industrial and commercial areas.”

Firefighting strategy

VALLEJO said, generally, firefighters do not encounter problems in accessing water.

“We have MOAs [memorandums of agreement] with local water districts,” she said. “In Metro Manila, we also have an adequate number of fire hydrants, so we have no problem with water.”

Solano added other fire trucks are refilled with water hauled by other fire trucks.

“If you notice our fire trucks are positioned one after the other, like a relay. This is because the water supply is transferred to the fire trucks in front of it just like a relay until the water reaches the one in front,” he said.

Solano explained it takes only several minutes for a fire truck to run out of water considering the need to expel huge volumes of water to put out the fire as quick as possible.

“This is a lot better than maneuvering each fire truck to get out of the area to refill the tanks with water,” he added.

He noted that fire quickly spreads and, in a matter of minutes, say, in a residential area, one block can immediately be burned to the ground in 5 to 10 minutes.

“For every second of delay, fire can quickly spread and consume. Say, in a burning building, in just 30 minutes, we can no longer save anything in that building,” Solano said. “All we can do is to let it burn to the ground and focus on the nearest establishment to prevent it from spreading.”

Fire-prone Metro

WITH a population of over 12 million people, Metro Manila has the all-time-high record of fire incidents, number of fatalities and estimated damage to property, according to the BFP.

This considering the fact that among all the regions, it has more fire stations, fire trucks and uniformed and non-uniformed personnel than other regions.

The National Capital Region (NCR) Office of the BFP has 3,188 personnel, including officers and non-uniformed personnel.

According to SFO 1 Gladdes H. Arreco, the BFP NCR has a total of 246 fire trucks but, unfortunately, only 139 are serviceable.

She said the procurement law prevents the BFP NCR from sending the unserviceable fire trucks to competent repair shops.

“It takes 60 days, and that is the fastest, to have fire trucks repaired because we also have to undergo the process and it also depends on the availability of repair shops,” Arreco said. “Not all repair shops are competent or have the capacity to repair fire trucks, especially hydraulics and motor pumps.”

Apparently, the number of fire stations, fire trucks, fire-fighting equipment and firefighters is still insufficient.

Volunteer brigades

ARRECO said the shortage in the number of fire trucks and firefighters is augmented by volunteer fire brigades.

“Volunteer fire brigades are our force multipliers. In fact, they have more fire trucks and more firefighters than the BFP,” Arreco, who spoke on behalf of NCR Fire Chief Senior Superintendent Roel Jeremy G. Diaz, emphasized.

There are a total of 813 fire brigades with a total of 4,525 volunteer firefighters in the entire NCR.

These are divided into 578 fire brigades with 10,034 volunteer firefighters and 235 barangay fire brigades with 644 volunteer firefighters.

Arreco, officer in charge of the BFP-NCR Public Information Office, said volunteer fire brigades are accredited and volunteer firefighters undergo training to boost their competency.

“Competency training is provided to company brigades and barangay brigades for them to get competency certificates,” she said.

Under the law, a company with 50 employees or workforce must have a fire brigade. But, she said in the NCR, there is very poor compliance.

“Only around 20 percent to 30 percent comply in the NCR,” Arreco said.

Rescue units

ARRECO said the NCR chief is aiming to establish one rescue unit in every city and town in the NCR.

So far, she said all of the five districts in the NCR have their own rescue unit but Diaz, she said, wants every city or town to have its own unit.

“So far, we have a total of 185 personnel assigned to the rescue units in the five districts in Metro Manila,” Arreco said.

She said firefighters will be trained how to do “difficult stunts,” such as rappelling from the top of the buildings, climbing tall buildings using ladders and ropes, breaking into windows and saving individuals trapped inside burning buildings.

Barangay Ugnayan

“IN the level of the BFP NCR, our effort is focused on fire prevention through the conduct of ‘Barangay Ugnayan’ [village network] and by encouraging community involvement,” Arreco said.

The mandate of the BFP NCR is to strengthen firefighting capacities through information drive, especially in schools and communities.

“Barangay Ugnayan” events pave the way for exchanges between the BFP and the communities. But she said these events happen one at a time and are held only when the NCR firefighters are “not busy” fighting fires.

Arreco said just last week, as part of the observance of the Fire Prevention Month, the BFP NCR conducted a series of activities wherein all schools in Metro Manila took part.

In the NCR, where there are tens of thousands of buildings that are prone to fire, Arreco said the BFP also holds fire drills as mandated by the Fire Code.

Fire drills are also mandated by the Fire Code of the Philippines. These are held in schools, industrial and commercial establishments, even in public markets.

Fire drills are sometimes taking place in barangays, upon the initiative of the concerned barangay officials or LGUs.

Prevention better

TO make saving lives and properties more efficient, the BFP believes prevention is the only way.

“Prevention is the only way to keep the number of fire incidents and fatalities down,” Vallejo said. “That is why the BFP continuously implements information drives to raise public awareness and give safety tips to businesses, schools, dormitories and even in the barangays.”

According to her, the information campaign is happening all-year round. The BFP also produces information materials it distributes in strategic areas, school buildings and even residential areas.

“Sometimes, personally, I feel sad about how people disregard our warnings. Sometimes, we [firefighters] are asking ourselves, where have we gone wrong? Have we [not] done enough?” she lamented.

Vallejo said every Filipino should do his or her part to prevent disastrous fires and, in the process, collectively achieve the ultimate goal of saving lives and properties.

 

Image Credits: AP/BULLIT MARQUEZ

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Jonathan L. Mayuga

Jonathan L. Mayuga is a journalist for more than 15 years. He is a product of the University of the East – Manila. An awardee of the J. G. Burgos Biotech Journalism Awards, BrightLeaf Agricultural Journalism Awards, Binhi Agricultural Journalism Awards, and Sarihay Environmental Journalism Awards.
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