‘Soldiers without weapons’: Karachi’s overwhelmed firefighters need more than just new trucks

About 20 fire trucks stationed at a workshop in Karachi, Pakistan, on January 11, 2021. (AN Photo)
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Updated 13 January 2021

‘Soldiers without weapons’: Karachi’s overwhelmed firefighters need more than just new trucks

  • The city of 15 million people has little more than a thousand firefighters, 14 functioning fire trucks and inadequate protective gear
  • Last Sunday new equipment arrived from China but fire department officials and experts say it is not enough for a city of Karachi’s size and population density 

KARACHI: Politicians and fire department officials in Pakistan’s financial hub of Karachi welcomed the arrival of new firefighting vehicles and equipment from China last week, but firefighters and experts say the machinery is nowhere near enough to cater to a megacity of over 15 million people.
Karachi, Pakistan’s biggest city and main port, is home to an ever-expanding nuclear power park, thousands of industrial units and some of the most recognizable skyscrapers in the country. It also has only 22 fire stations, 14 functional fire tenders, two snorkels and a little more than a thousand firefighters for a city where over 700 fire incidents were reported just in the first three months of last year.

The Karachi Fire Brigade Department, Karachi, Pakistan, on January 11, 2021. (AN Photo)

In one of the worst fire accidents in the country’s history, flames ravaged a textile factory complex in Karachi in 2012, killing almost 300 workers trapped behind locked doors.
On Sunday, a day after a grade-three fire broke out in a chemical warehouse in an industrial area of Karachi, federal authorities announced they had received 50 modern fire trucks and two waters bowsers from China.
But Ali Hassan Sajid, Karachi Metropolitan Corporation’s (KMC) spokesperson, said the new equipment was too little too late — the city’s fire department did not have enough funds to manage the service and required additional snorkel ladders as well as staff to work efficiently.
Osama Jadoon, a fire safety expert, said though Karachi and New York were almost the same size, there was a vast difference in the size and capacity of their firefighting departments.
“Karachi has about 20 fire stations and 1,200 firemen whereas New York has 12,000 highly trained and well-equipped firefighters who get deployed at about 750 different locations,” Jadoon said. “A fire tender [truck] should ideally be able to reach its destination within three minutes, but usually get caught in traffic in Karachi.”
In 2018, the Sindh administration provided three fire trucks and a snorkel to the KMC fire department. Before that, it had added 50 fire trucks to an existing fleet of 17 in 1995. Of the 67 trucks, only 14 are functional now, KMC’s Sajid said.

An out-of-order fire truck is stationed at a fire station in Karachi’s industrial area where 258 people burnt alive in September 2012 in a factory fire. Photograph taken in Karachi, Pakistan, on January 11, 2021. (AN Photo) 

Dennis, the first snorkel ladder of the Karachi fire department, was purchased in 1914. Photographed in Karachi, Pakistan, on January 11, 2021. (AN Photo) 

But an insufficient number of vehicles is not the only issue. The KMC spokesperson said the last time a training program was arranged for staff was in 2009. He also admitted that firefighters did not have proper protective gear and a shortage of staff required firefighters to work 12-hour-shifts.
“They have not been paid for putting in extra hours since November 2019,” Sajid said.
But despite tough circumstances, firefighters say they have done their best to protect people in the metropolis. In January 2007, eight firemen burned alive in a cotton factory trying to rescue workers.
“Have you ever seen a solider fight without a weapon?” said a firefighter who requested not to be named as he was not allowed to speak to the media. “That’s the kind of situation we face.”

Another staff member, a truck driver, concurred:
“I am not afraid of flames, but I get scared driving this vehicle,” he said, pointing at the clutch of his fire tender which was held together with a piece of rubber. “Even with these conditions, we managed to deal with 199 fire emergencies last year.”
He added: “Maybe the new fire tender will at least help us get rid of this vehicle.”

PM Khan calls for affordable supply of COVID vaccines, debt relief for developing countries

Updated 25 January 2021

PM Khan calls for affordable supply of COVID vaccines, debt relief for developing countries

  • Pakistani prime minister delivers statement at fourth session of UN Conference on Trade and Development
  • Offers five-point agenda to address structural barriers hampering global development during pandemic

ISLAMABAD: Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan on Monday proposed a five-point agenda to address structural barriers hampering global development during the coronavirus pandemic, urging the "equitable and affordable" supply of vaccines to developing countries and calling for additional debt relief. 

Khan presented a statement at the fourth session of the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development Intergovernmental Group of Experts on Financing for Development. 

He said the pandemic offered an opportunity to address “structural barriers hampering global prosperity and development,” proposing a five-point agenda.

“One, a viable framework for equitable and affordable supply of COVID vaccine to developing countries. The coverage of the COVAX facility must be expanded. This would enable the developing countries to spend their precious resources on socio-economic development needs,” the PM said. 

He said developing nations should get additional debt relief, including suspension of debt repayments for the most stressed countries until the end of the pandemic, restructuring of their public-sector debt under an agreed and inclusive multilateral framework; and expanding concessional financing through multilateral development banks.

“Three, a general allocation of Special Drawing Rights (SDRs) of 500 billion dollars to help alleviate balance-of-payment pressures,” Khan added. “Four, return of stolen assets held by corrupt politicians and criminals ... Reportedly, a staggering amount of 7 trillion dollars is parked in 'haven' destinations. And it is also reported that one trillion dollars annually leaves the developing countries for these “haven” destinations.”

Finally, the PM said, mobilizing $100 billion annually by developed countries for climate action in developing countries was a target that needed to be met. 

“Economic malaise and recession, like the coronavirus, is highly communicable,” Khan said. “Global policy measures, along the lines I have outlined, are urgently needed to save lives, revive economies, and build back better.”

Pakistan has reported 534,041 COVID-19 cases so far, and 11,318 deaths, far lower than what officials had feared.

“In Pakistan, our efforts have been aimed at ensuring that we save people from dying from the virus, and at the same time preventing them from dying from hunger,” Khan said. “Our strategy fortunately has worked well so far. But continuous efforts are needed to fully overcome the second wave of the virus. And also at the same time to maintain and stimulate economic growth.”