Maxmilian Wechsler investigates
IT took several months to find Namchok Maison, a Bangkok firefighter with permission to speak on record about what is surely one of the city’s most dangerous occupations.
We met in the compound of Samsen fire station, where he is attached, on Khao Road behind Vachira Hospital in the Dusit district. I was instantly awed by the row of shiny firefighting trucks and other supporting vehicles on standby at the large compound, ready to be dispatched to a fire or other emergency.
However, the most interesting piece of equipment at the station is a giant Mercedes-Benz truck with a ladder that has a maximum vertical extension of 90 meters and side extension of 32.5 meters, and can rotate 360 degrees. Most people probably don’t know that the Bangkok fire brigade has such equipment.
Born into a farming family in Uthai Thani province, Mr Namchok studied political science at Ramkamhaeng University. In late 2007 he joined the Bangkok Fire and Rescue Department under the Bangkok Metropolitan Administration (BMA), a career light years from his course of study. Why?
I will continue until my retirement, which is many years away.”
At first he was afraid when called to tackle fires, but no longer. He’s never been injured while on duty, even though he’s been in the thick of many of the worst disaster scenes.
Firefighting teams from Samsen responded to the Santika club fire in Bangkok that killed 66 people and injured more than 220 in the early hours of January 1, 2009. “The fire was outside of our area, but because of the magnitude of the disaster, fire brigades from all over Bangkok were called to the scene. It was by far my worst experience as a fireman because so many people were killed and injured. It was really a horrible scene. I only hope that such a disaster never happens again in Bangkok.”
Another fire he will never forget was the one at Suapa Plaza in Chinatown just a few days later. “Helicopters were used to rescue people from the rooftop. One person was killed and about 47 others injured in the blaze, which was attended by about 60 fire engines deployed from many Bangkok fire stations,” Mr Namchok said.
During the disastrous floods in 2010, the Samsen station avoided inundation despite being close to the Chao Phaya River. “We were helping communities in nearby Bangplat district, which was under deep water. We delivered food, water and other necessities to the people who were stranded in their homes, ferried people who needed medical attention, and so forth.”
Two of Mr Namchok’s colleagues also said they were happy with their occupation. One added: “Even if I could earn more money doing something else, I would still be a fireman because I want to help people in emergency situations.”
Mr Namchok, who is not married, agreed, saying his salary is “enough for me.”
Mr Namchok underwent training in Cha-am, Lopburi and Bangkok. He told us: “The Bangkok Fire and Rescue Department has 35 fire stations with 1,500 to 1,600 personnel. The stations are divided into four divisions with seven to 11 stations each. Samsen fire station has about 13 operational firefighting trucks; some others are now under repair. We have 43 firemen divided into two teams, each on 24-hour shifts.
“The responsibilities of all fire brigades include extinguishing fires, relieving disaster situations, making rescues, patrolling and fire prevention, among others. We also survey and map water sources in communities, maintain our vehicles and other equipment, conduct training exercises and assist citizens and public agencies in various ways.”
“This is often more dangerous than fighting the fire because many drivers won’t give us the right of way despite our sirens and emergency lights. Many Thai drivers are selfish and lack good manners. We have to be very careful not to hit other vehicles,” Mr Namchok said.
Once a fire or other emergency is reported, a siren blares at Samsen fire station. A fire crew departs within one or two minutes and is usually able to reach the site within eight minutes, provided it is in the area under the station’s jurisdiction.
“To report an emergency, people can dial 199, which is our centre located at Phayathai fire station,” he added. “They will contact the appropriate fire station by radio. Our radio is on around the clock.
“As for fighting a fire, my team will discuss the way to go about it after arriving at the scene and surveying the situation. This doesn’t take too long. We will ask people when the fire started and if they know why it started. We will quickly examine the building that is on fire as well as surrounding locations.
“As for firefighting equipment, we have everything we need − no problems in this respect. I have protective clothes and other gear like gas masks and oxygen tanks at my disposal and so do my colleagues. We don’t have any females at my station,” he added.
The incidence of fires in his district and Bangkok in general has been decreasing, mainly because of greater awareness of fire hazards. “We go to see people throughout Bangkok and educate them on how to prevent fires. We go to schools, to slum communities and many other places. Sometimes people come to see us at Samsen station. Owners of buildings can undergo training in fire prevention at the station. In fact, anyone can come and will be informed,” said Mr Namchok.
Another reason for the decrease in fires is that new buildings are built from less inflammable materials and are equipped with fire prevention features and equipment.
“The main cause of fires is an electric short circuit; the second is the burning of incense,” said Mr Namchok, adding that fires often start in the kitchen. “Arson is rare. I can’t remember any cases that I have been involved in, although the police investigate the cause of fires, not us.”
What about the volunteer firefighters who use pick-up trucks and even motorcycles with sirens blaring and flashing lights to race to conflagrations, often breaking traffic laws and endangering other drivers and pedestrians? “They often arrive at the scene before the BMA fire brigade does because some of their volunteers and vehicles are positioned in slum communities. They also monitor the central fire radio frequency, so they know the location of the fire and race there immediately,” said Mr Namchok, who estimated there are 1,000 to 2,000 volunteer firemen in Bangkok.
“Sometimes they will listen to our advice and work with us, but sometimes they just do what they like. It depends on the situation. The problem is usually with communication.” This was obviously a sensitive matter he wasn’t keen on talking about.
Although lacking equipment themselves, the volunteers often help the BMA brigades to connect to distant hydrants by the use of hoses they carry in the back of their pick-ups. And they are often commended for wanting to assist people, especially in slum communities.
Generally, there is good access to water hydrants in Bangkok, and no problem with pressure. “When there is a fire in the slum where hydrants are not installed, we can often get water from the canals.
A major problem, though, are Bangkok’s side streets, which are often too narrow for the large fire trucks. The solution is simply to connect enough fire hoses to reach whatever length is required, says Mr Namchok. “As for fires in multi-storey buildings, we take the Mercedes Benz, which has a 90m motorized ladder.
“If our ladder cannot reach the blaze we will use the building’s fireman’s lift, which has separate electricity connections. This should help to evacuate the residents and allow the fire brigade to combat the fire. According to regulations, every building higher than 23 meters must have a fireman’s lift. There should also be hydrants inside the buildings.
“There are three teams at the BMA who inspect new buildings and other structures before they open for fire prevention systems, like fireman’s lifts, sprinklers, hydrants, fire escapes and so on. If the building is in Samsen district, the local firemen will go there as well.
“Most of the buildings in Samsen district are low-rise – unlike Sukhumvit or Silom areas, for example − but they include some important places like Chitralada Palace and the Parliament building.
“We are trained to combat and extinguish fires at factories, where chemicals or other hazardous materials may be stored. Fortunately, since I have been on the job I haven’t had to respond to such a fire. The BMA can call in police helicopters if necessary to evacuate people from the roof or for other purposes.”