Since its formation over 225 years ago, the Mumbai Fire Brigade has lived up to its credo of Valour, Abnegation and Sacrifice. The Brigadeís heroic and selfless "men in blue" face a daunting challenge in a congested city where fire hazards are endemic.
By Rashna Ardesher
In our poverty-stricken nation, imagine gold bars falling through the roof into your house. Well, maybe youíd think that God had answered your prayers at last, and a chamatkaar had taken place. This happened once to a Parsi gentleman named Burjorji Cooverji Motivala, when a gold bar crashed through the roof of his third floor apartment at Kukana House in Girgaum.
But this was no chamatkaar for Motivala. It was the ill-fated and unforgettable Bombay Docks (called the Victoria Docks at that time) explosions on 14 April, 1944. The ship, Fort Stikine, about to unload dried fish, cotton bales from Karachi, timber, gunpowder, ammunition and gold bars from London, at the Bombay Docks, blew up and sent its lethal combination of cargo soaring to a height of 3,000 feet like flying saucers!
The explosions were so loud that windows rattled and shattered as far away as Dadar. Both Bombay Central (BB&CI) and Victoria Terminus (GIP) Stations were packed to capacity with panic-stricken people fleeing the city in whichever train they could board for their villages, for rumours spread like wildfire that the explosions signalled the commencement of hostilities by the Japanese akin to the surprise attack on Pearl Harbor in the Hawaiian islands in December 1941. Nobody is certain how the fire started but the two explosions that followed one after the other at 4.06 p.m. and 4.40 p.m. were so devastating that several Dock workers were killed instantly. About 300 acres of the Dock were laid waste and 14 other ships in the vicinity blown to smithereens. Of course, Burjorji was scared, but safe and sound. An honest citizen, he promptly returned the gold bar to the authorities, for which he was presented with an award of Rs. 999, which he donated to the relief work in the Docks.
In the midst of all the chaos and loss of life (336 people died and 1,040 were injured), it was the Bombay Fire Brigade that remained undaunted and faced the challenge. Through unmatched tenacity, perseverance, devotion to duty and gallantry, the officers and men of the Brigade battled the conflagrations. The firefighting operations continued for over a month. For the Bombay Fire Brigade the significance of the Bombay Docks explosion lies in the sacrifice of 66 heroic officers and men, who laid down their lives at the altar of duty and established a glorious heritage for the Brigade. A majority of the brave men of the Brigade, who answered the call to duty immediately after the first blast, lost their lives in the second explosion. Many more were disabled for life and a large number of fire appliances and equipment were destroyed or damaged. Lovejoy Sicil Dady Mehervanjee, a sub-leader with the Bombay Auxiliary Fire Service, was the only lucky person, who, in spite of multiple injuries, was absorbed back as Station Officer with the Bombay Fire Brigade. He went on to become Chief Fire Officer of the Brigade on Parsi New Year Day, 1 September, 1978. Now retired, he lives with his memories.
In recognition of this supreme sacrifice, the citizens of Bombay erected a Memorial Column at the Fire Brigade Headquarters and the Government of India declared 14 April as Fire Services Day to be observed nationwide every year. The entire nation took pride in the Brigade, which set a memorable example for other Fire Services to emulate.
The origins of the Fire Service in Bombay can be traced back to 1777 when Colonel Lee was allotted Rs. 4 per day "for his trouble of superintending the fire engines", which were hand-operated. In 1855 the Police Force started discharging the dual duties of maintaining law and order as also of firefighting. In 1864 a commission was appointed to report on the organisation of a Fire Service. A police officer was sent to England to qualify himself as Captain of the New Steam Fire Brigade. In a yearís time the Fire Brigade was jointly under the control of the Government and the Municipality. At that time, the Brigade was using horse-drawn steam engines and hand engines, giving rise to the colloquial words Bamba for steam engine and Bambakhana for a Fire Station. On 1 April, 1887 the dual control of the Brigade ended and complete control was transferred to the Municipality. From 1890 to 1948, the Brigade was commanded by an Officer, W. Nicholls, on deputation from the London Fire Brigade, who became the first Chief Fire Officer of the Bombay Fire Brigade. After Independence, in 1948, M.G. Pradhan was appointed Chief Fire Officer, the first Indian to hold this distinction. Since then the Brigade has been completely manned and controlled by Indians.
The oldest Fire Station in Bombay is at Nana Chowk. Today, the Brigade has 24 Fire Stations, with its headquarters located at Byculla under the leadership of Chief Fire Officer Amarjit Jhandwal.
Interested in joining the prestigious Mumbai Fire Brigade? There are two entry levels ?Fireman and Assistant Station Officer. While a Fireman actually fights the fire and maintains fire equipment, a Fire Officerís role, apart from firefighting, is supervising the maintenance of equipment, reporting any malfunctioning, taking care of administrative aspects and being up to date in every aspect. A minimum qualification of Std. VII is required for a Fireman, whereas an Assistant Station Officer needs compulsorily to be a science graduate with chemistry as his principal subject. You may wonder, why science and not commerce or arts? According to Joint Chief Officer G.S. Sawant: "It is said that firefighting is a science. Fire itself is a chemical reaction. In Mumbai there are a number of factories using toxic chemicals, which are inflammable. The Station Officer should know what chemicals he is trying to extinguish and what to use on such fires. He should know the properties of various chemicals, make a number of calculations, and use his knowledge of Chemistry accordingly. Therefore, a science graduate is a must. In fact it is an internationally accepted fact."
Candidates have to go through a rigorous physical test. Says Sawant: "We see how fast he runs without any load on him, how fast he runs with a load of, say, 50 kilograms, how fast he climbs the ladder. Is he daring enough to jump from the second floor to the ground? Of course, our men are there to catch him in the net. Can he climb on the rope up to the 2nd floor and again climb down? Then we see his qualifications and, according to his ability and the training that he receives later, we appoint him either as Fireman or Assistant Station Officer."
Apart from this physical test, a panel of Officers from different departments of the Fire Service administer a general knowledge test to the candidate. They test how well the candidate understands the people of Mumbai, whether he knows the topography of the city and which roads lead where, his observation of the area in which he lives, whether he knows the landmarks in that area?Candidates are even questioned about the telephone numbers of the Mumbai Fire Brigade because very often victims do not know the Fire Service numbers and instead dial the police, who in turn inform the appropriate Fire Station!
The Mumbai Fire Brigade has a Training Centre at Wadala Fire Station where all the recruit officers and firemen are trained for a period of six months in firefighting, climbing a ladder, rescuing a victim, rendering first aid and in administrative work. Various refresher courses are conducted.
Promotion is based entirely on merit, qualifications and the type of experience rather than seniority. However, it is important to gain experience for a minimum of three to five years for each posting.
The officers and men of the Brigade are on duty 24 hours a day. They are on the alert and maintain a round-the-clock vigil so that any emergency, whether big or small, is responded to within 30 seconds. According to Divisional Fire Officer A.Y. Gadade: "Once a call is received on wireless, we get instant energy and urge to save life and property. We forget everything else. We may be very tired, but we have to follow our principle. We remain at the scene of the fire till such time as the fire is totally extinguished." In 1991 the Brigade placed part of its staff on a shift system. An additional 700 Firemen were recruited. Two more Training Centres at Malad and Nariman Point came up, which were later shifted to Wadala Fire Station.
Constant training in handling rescue equipment such as hydraulic platforms (snorkels), tall ladders, special rescue tenders, breathing apparatus, high pressure pumps, etc., and their maintenance, is very important as speed is of the essence in putting out a fire and saving lives. Greater Bombay, especially, is full of slum areas. In reality, every conceivable fire hazard exists in Greater Bombay, with its vast harbour, a massive airport complex at Santacruz and Sahar, a fertilizer factory, two large oil refineries, the Atomic Energy Establishment and Thermal Power Station at Trombay. The 1,000-odd Officers and men of the Brigade have a heavy workload, with potential fire risks spreading over 437 square kilometres and covering a population of nearly 9 million. In such a scenario, if the equipment fails, it can create further delays and loss of lives and property.
Once deputed to the scene of a fire or any other emergency, the officers proudly don their dark blue tunic and pants. Blue keeps their body temperature constant (thus preventing them from catching fever) while fighting a blaze. The uniform includes a black waist-belt, a black helmet made from fibre reinforced plastic, and rubber shoes, which are fire-proof as well as chemical-proof. The uniform of the Mumbai Fire Brigade is distinctive. Fire Service Officers in other Indian States wear khakis. This difference is because the Mumbai Fire Brigade continues to follow the London Fire Service, which operated only in Mumbai city.
At the office, taking care of administrative work, Fire Officers wear a different uniform with a white shirt, blue pants and black leather shoes. However, when attending a parade or any other ceremony, they are back in their blue uniforms with blue tunics and all their gallantry medals.
When the Control Room receives a distress call, it takes down the address and telephone number in detail along with the type of incident. These details are then passed on to the appropriate Fire Station on the wireless network of the Brigade. It takes from half a minute to a maximum of four minutes for the Brigade to arrive at the scene of the incident.
One thing the Brigade dreads is a gas cylinder blast, which invariably causes severe burns and loss of life. Says Chief Fire Officer Amarjit Jhandwal, in his white uniform with a ribbon proudly displaying a replica of the seven gallantry medals won in the course of service: "When a gas cylinder bursts, inflammable gas spreads all over the area, resulting in explosion and fire ?similar to when an aeroplane catches fire during an emergency landing or when taking off." According to Jhandwal: "The reason could be an oil spill or any other technical snag. The Fire Brigade is called immediately. The first thing that comes to the mind of a Fire Officer is to save lives of occupants inside the plane. There and then a plan/strategy is chalked out in his mind so as to fight the fire effectively, find out whether there is any inflammable liquid coming out of the plane causing the fire or which could possibly cause a fire. Usually, jet fuel is used in huge quantities in planes, which is even more dangerous than LPGs. It is not possible to immediately react, but within a few seconds, the Fire Officer has to think out a strategy. Most importantly, he has to coordinate with various agencies such as the airport authorities, team of doctors, nurses, etc. In the meantime, other firefighters lay down their water hoses. Everybody works as a team. First aid is immediately carried out on the victims."
There are special ambulances in the Mumbai Fire Brigade to carry out first-aid operations. The Ambulance Service in the Brigade was established with ambulances donated by Bai Jerbai Wadia and Sir Mangaldas Mehta way back in 1920. Recognising the immense need and value of this service for the citizens, the Brigade converted this service into one of its permanent wings in 1941 and it has been an integral part of the Brigade ever since.
In 1991-92 a big fire occurred at the Refinery of Bharat Petroleum Corporation Limited (BPCL). One after another, the oil tanks of BPCL started to melt. Firemen poured water from all sides and used foam to smother the blaze. It took the Mumbai Fire Brigade a number of days to control that fire. Several lives were saved.
In another incident in 1997 a fire raged in Express Towers at Nariman Point in South Mumbai. The entire 15th floor was gutted. People on the 25th floor were trapped. Fifteen fire engines arrived on the spot. More than a hundred firefighters were involved. Twelve water jets were used to extinguish the fire. In all, 23 people were rescued with the help of tall ladders and staircases, and the entire building was evacuated by Firemen escorting people down the smoke-clogged staircases.
According to author Kurt Vonnegut, "I can think of no more stirring symbol of manís humanity to man than a fire engine." Apart from firefighting, special services that involve life-saving or rescue operations, humanitarian services and urgent services in the public interest are also rendered by the Mumbai Fire Brigade. These include rescue operations following the collapse of a building, train and motor accidents, drowning accidents, tree falls, oil and acid spillages, gas leaks and so on. Fire and special services of an emergency nature are rendered free of charge. For non-emergency services, a separate fee is charged. Recalls Chief Fire Officer Jhandwal: "The Apollo Circus had come to Cross Maidan in 1972. One of the Circus elephants got wild and started stomping on the roads, frightening a lot of people. The police tried to control him, but in vain. Then they called the Fire Services. Knowing that elephants are usually fond of mud and like to play in water, I called for tankers. When the tanker reached the site, we prepared three to four jets and started pouring water. Within half an hour the elephant cooled down. We returned the elephant to its caretaker.
"Another incident happened in Mogul Lane in Mahim in 1974. A snake entered the house of a Police Inspector. He must have tried to get rid of it, but unsuccessfully. Afterwards he called us. Coincidentally, I was there at that time. The Inspectorís room was very small. We found the snake was hiding near a tin box in the kitchen. The room was so tiny and congested that it was not possible for us to manoeuvre the long stick and hit the snake or even capture it alive. One of the Firemen pushed it a little and the snake moved to the side and started baring its fangs. Immediately, from the other side, another Fireman threw a wet, heavy gunny bag on it. The snake tumbled and collapsed. Another Fireman hit it immediately with a long stick."
A puppy trapped
As a child I was told that if ever a thief entered our house while I was alone, I should always shout "Aag! Aag!" ("Fire! Fire!"), instead of "Chor! Chor!" ("Thief! Thief!") Any neighbour would come running out to help, and catch the thief. Thereís a lighter side to this. Way back in 1975, in the Kalbadevi area, a puppy was trapped in a drain and was whimpering away at 3.00 a.m. A middle-aged Parsi gentleman, whose sleep was being disturbed, called up the Mumbai Fire Brigade. When the Brigade reached the site, the gentleman remarked: "Yeh kutta bahut chillata hai." ("This dog is making a lot of noise.") The Brigade enquired: "Kidhar hai?" ("Where is it?") The gentleman pointed out in the dark. The Brigade entered the dark, dingy gutter and found the small puppy trapped in the mud. The gentleman told them to take the puppy away, complaining: "Itís 3.30 a.m. now. Iím not able to sleep!" One of the Firemen retorted: "So you didnít bother about our sleep. We are also human beings!"
Every year from April 14 to 20, the Mumbai Fire Brigade celebrates Fire Services Week. The Brigade goes around Mumbai city educating people, schoolchildren, industrial employees and NGOs about fire hazards and fire safety through talks and demonstrations.
Asked what made him join the Mumbai Fire Brigade, Jhandwal replies: "My whole family is from the army. I was selected for Short Service Commission and obtained Officers Training in 1969 in Chennai. But I was sent to Nagaland during the insurgencies. I was not very happy and left on medical grounds. I then came to Aurangabad. By good luck, this vacancy came up in the Mumbai Fire Brigade. I selected this service as I felt that by wearing this uniform I would get more satisfaction. Since then Iíve received five promotions by sheer hard work. It is not just seniority. Over here, merit and experience both count and that is what attracted me. I feel that the Mumbai Fire Brigade will flourish only for this reason."
Salaries and perquisites start from Rs. 6,000 for Firemen and Rs. 8,000 for Station Officers. The Brigade has its own Welfare Centre for family members of Fire Officers. The Centre undertakes a wide range of activities, which include indoor and outdoor games, sewing classes, balwadi, excursions?Fire Officers are also provided clean, airy and hygienic living quarters for them and their families. The ringing of the emergency bell is a part of their lives as well as their familyís. Usually, most emergencies occur at night.
Of course, family members of Firemen are always psychologically prepared for any eventuality. In the event of the death of a Fireman or Officer, the compensation is approximately Rs. 2 lakhs to Rs. 3 lakhs. Jhandwal has recently initiated a proposal whereby in the future, the family of a firefighter who has sacrificed his life in the line of duty could get compensation of between Rs. 7 lakhs to Rs. 10 lakhs. Besides, although not as per the rules, the Municipal Corporation provides an opportunity to work in the Corporation either to the deceased officerís wife or daughter. However, if the deceased has a son who wishes to enter the Mumbai Fire Brigade, he is selected purely on merit as a firefighter and not by virtue of being a son of the deceased.
Although at present there is no provision against permanent physical incapacitation except for free treatment at hospitals, Jhandwal has recently emphasized to the administration that, apart from death compensation, firefighters who are disabled or incapacitated while on duty should also be compensated. A group insurance scheme is being worked out. It is noteworthy to mention that the Mumbai Fire Brigade was not targeted or attacked during the time of riots or bomb blasts. Such is the respect the Brigade commands. When the Firemen reached the scene of the riots, they saw two communities fighting, shooting at each other. They attacked the police, but not the Brigade.
When asked about the 11 September, 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon in the U.S., Jhandwal says: "The firefighters laid down their lives for a noble cause. I myself was thinking of how the Mumbai Fire Brigade would have reacted to this irreparable damage and colossal loss of lives. How the Firemen actually facing this crisis must be feeling at that time! We have ecorded that entire incident ?Of course we cannot compare ourselves with them. Their pattern of working is different, economic conditions are different?Their rules and regulations are very strict where even a contractor or a builder cannot overstep the rules. That awareness is lacking in India. We take things very lightly. We are trying our level best to impart training to the common man. In fact the Mumbai Fire Brigade is the proud pioneer in this sort of training and education."
Change is a part of everybodyís life. Even of the Mumbai Fire Brigade, which is reorganising its setup. The Brigade intends to minimise its response time in case of emergencies. Already, the Brigade imports its equipment from Sweden, Finland, Austria and Japan. In fact, 13 fire pumps were recently imported from Japan. But the Brigade needs more advanced and sophisticated equipment such as aerial ladders, snorkels, aerial platforms for multi-storeyed high-rise buildings, rescue tools such as rescue gears, and thermal image cameras, which help to search for bodies among the debris in case of collapsed buildings or railway accidents. During the Latur earthquake in 1993, 30 firefighters from Mumbai rescued more than 80 people. The irony is that they reached as late as on the third day after the earthquake. The reason, as usual, was bureaucracy. The Mumbai Fire Brigade received orders far too late from the Indian Government.
Jhandwalís idea is to have a Special Task Force, a specialised team to respond to distress calls. At present, 40 per cent of the calls received by the Brigade are for firefighting. The remaining 60 per cent of the time they are busy cleaning up oil spills on roads, and with other rescue work. Jhandwal observes: "We have the expertise but not the equipment. Man and machine should work simultaneously. Thatís the concept of a Task Force, which I wish to bring about in the Mumbai Fire Brigade."
Recently, the Brigade has established the Human Resources Department and Planning Section to increase its manpower, improvise its equipment, skill and techniques to meet future challenges. At present the Brigade has only 24 Fire Stations, whereas the requirement is for 110 Fire Stations. The Additional Municipal Commissioner, A.K. Jain, and the Mumbai Municipal Commissioner, K. Srivastava, support these developments. They have already developed six more Fire Stations. Five more will be developed by the year 2003. There is also an additional requirement for 4,000 Firemen and 200 Station Officers, whereas at present the Brigade has only 2,000 Firemen and 126 Station Officers.
The main source of revenue for the Brigade is Fire Tax, which is currently levied on properties at the rate of 2 per cent of the rateable value, as also capitation fees for high-rise and special buildings.
As far as skill, technique and courage are concerned, the Mumbai Fire Brigade falls short of none. The Brigade has a proud record of receiving a number of national honours, including the Presidentís Fire Services Medal for Gallantry, which is the highest national honour for Fire Services personnel. Also, the Fire Services Medal for Meritorious Service awarded by the President was conferred on an Officer of the Brigade for the first time in the State of Maharashtra.
The Mumbai Fire Brigade is geared to "kill the fire before it kills". This is the only Brigade which has its own flag. A separate emblem for the Brigade was approved and adopted in 1979 and the colours presented at the hands of the Governor of Maharashtra in 1980. The periphery of the emblem shows a silver star with a black outline and rounded edges. This star is the symbol of the Fire Service and is also a part of the emblem of the London Fire Brigade. Being the parent organisation of the Mumbai Fire Brigade, the centre of the emblem contains the Coat of Arms of the Municipal Corporation of Greater Bombay. At the base of the emblem are three words: Shouryam (Valour), Atmasanyamanam (Abnegation) and Tyagah (Sacrifice). These are the three objectives which the Brigade and its personnel are always exhorted to uphold and carry on. The emblem reminds one of the epitaph in a cemetery in Kohima: "When you go home, tell them of us and say, for their tomorrow we gave our today."
We sometimes delay calling the Brigade because we think the fire is too small or we can extinguish it easily ourselves or someone else has already dialled 101. Play it safe. If you see a fire, however small, call the Mumbai Fire Brigade without hesitation. It costs nothing and you may save a life and minimise national loss.