BY COREY ROBINSON Sunday Observer staff reporter firstname.lastname@example.org
THE efficiency of firefighters at the Waterford Station in Portmore, St Catherine is being tested by a growing populace and an ageing and unsuitable fleet of fire engines.
District officer in the fire service Fitz McKenzie identified these issues as being among the many challenges facing Portmore's only fire department.
"Maybe in the past 10 years we have around five new schemes just come up and we have to service those areas," said McKenzie, in reference to Portmore's population of more than 150,000.
"And also on the Mandela (Highway) going on to Ferry, sometimes we are called to [deal with] bush fires and so on in those areas. So it is a lot that we have to deal with," continued McKenzie, explaining that the distance between the fire station and many communities in the sprawling municipality impacts the firemen's responsiveness in many emergencies.
He said that distance is always a factor when responding to fires in sections of Hellshire, for example, where flint (a naturally occurring rock that is known to spark fires), and residents' carelessness are responsible for frequent bush fires.
However, the fires have lessened somewhat since the Jamaica Observer first reported on the issue in May, said McKenzie, suggesting that increased awareness of the hazards and relatively cool seasonal temperatures may have aided that reduction.
When the Sunday Observer visited the fire station last Friday, it seemed adequately outfitted with at least four fire units of varying sizes.
But this is a common miscalculation of the layman visitor, explained McKenzie, when, in reality, Waterford's firemen are actually "limping along" with one effective unit, he said.
"Several fire trucks you see here, but they are here for special duties," said McKenzie. "We have a ladder truck, which, because of its size, it can't go to many scenes. We have one rescue unit — which covers rescuing — which does not carry water and we have a foam truck which carries only the driver and two others," he continued, pointing out that a team of eight persons is usually required to properly respond to fire emergencies.
"In terms of the everyday truck that can respond to all fires, we have only one, and it develops a lot of problems from time to time. The fact is that it is old and we need to have something that we can move around effectively without giving us a lot of problems," he continued, noting that the truck has been in operation some 20 years.
There is also a huge ladder truck at the station, which McKenzie said is equally problematic as the station's hydraulic platform, or turntable ladder truck, which weighs some 22 tonnes and carries a boom capable of extending some 104 feet into the air. None of these three trucks
can efficiently manoeuvre Greater Portmore's tight road/pathways, Hellshire's bushy terrain, or move swiftly to the frequent accident scenes along the Portmore toll road and the Mandela Highway.
There are also remnants of a fire engine which McKenzie said is being scrapped for parts following an accident some years ago. That unit has not been replaced.
"Which leaves us with only one workable unit," emphasised McKenzie.
"We try, from time to time, we really try, but sometimes it's really hard. Up to recently we had some terrible bush fires in Grange Lane. Fire left, right, and centre, and we had to get units from Spanish Town to assist us," he said.
He described the mechanical problems as bring so numerous that "I would prefer you get the details from a mechanic".
Upon inspection, the solitary functional unit appeared decrepit, with uncovered wires, a loose dashboard panel, and window winders which do not work.
In the meantime, McKenzie cited a problem his firefighters have complained of more often lately — the failure of the police to ensure crowd control at an accident scene. He pointed to routine disruptions of the efforts of the fire services at such scenes by onlookers eager to 'assist' with rescues.
"We are challenged by the people and the police. When we respond to an accident scene, everybody is trying to help and when we (firemen) reach at the scene, we take charge of the scene," he said.
"The police duty is to cordon off the area and to prevent people from coming into that impact zone so that we can work freely, but sometimes we don't have any space to work; we have to be begging persons to excuse," he continued.
Last Saturday, Senior Superintendent Colin Pinnock, head of the St Catherine North Police Division, told the Observer that it was the first he had heard that the firemen had this concern.
"It is the first time that I am hearing that, and if they have a problem I am at the Portmore police station, my cellular phone numbers are there in the directory and they can call me," he said.
"Because I have been on scenes where we cordon off the area and allow them to do their work. The police are the first responders and it is we who call them (firefighters) on the scene. They are not in charge of the scene. They assist because they are the persons who are trained to do certain things," he continued.