Wife's phone call ends firefighter's daredevil protest
Suspended firefighter Sergeant Leo Bennett stands shirtless holding a Jamaican flag and a torch atop the Half-Way-Tree Transport Centre in St Andrew on Tuesday morning protesting the conditions under which firefighters work. (Photo: Joseph Wellington)

For just over five hours suspended firefighter Sergeant Leo Bennett resisted appeals for him to climb down from the highest point of the double-level Half-Way-Tree Transport Centre in St Andrew. Eventually, Bennett slid down the building's metal arch, like a kid on a water slide, eliciting loud cheers from the large crowd that had gathered to watch him.

Once on the ground he did a few push-ups, then took a sip of water before explaining that he staged the daredevil stunt to draw attention to the "poor" working conditions of his colleagues.

"I got a call from my wife," Bennett told the Jamaica Observer when asked what was the deciding factor for his descent from the towering structure just after midday.

"The Jamaica Fire Brigade members have a system where we have to be at work every day of our lives. It is terrible! What we are asking the management for is a work system where we can get some time off so we can get work-life balance," he said amid shouts of, "Love and respect" from the adoring crowd, many of whom made video recordings of his comments on their cellphones.

Firefighter Leo Bennett is flocked by Jamaicans, including some of his relatives, after descending the Half-Way-Tree Transport Centre just after midday on Tuesday. (Photo: Jason Cross)

"When we go to an illegal dump where you have asbestos material and a lot of medical waste... when that gets on our uniform there is no facility at the Half-Way-Tree Fire Station or anywhere else to cleanse that — we have to take it home. And what must we do? We have to stuff it into the same washing machine to expose my four-year-old son and my wife to cancer-causing material," Bennett said.

"Six other members were unjustly suspended for voicing their concerns about safety; they are now receiving half-pay. If you check Hagley Park Road, since the Chinese finished that road there is not one working hydrant the brigade can connect to. Check Constant Spring Road — there are like three call centres and there are no hydrants next to them. God forbid if we get a fire at the call centre, your sister will perish," warned Bennett who was suspended last year after staging a one-man protest over shift arrangements which he claimed where unfair.

Bennett, who is scheduled to face a Jamaica Fire Brigade disciplinary committee hearing today, shared that memories of death and other forms of tragedy remain etched in his and his colleagues' minds. According to him, his colleagues often resort to unhealthy and unsafe means of coping with stress.

Firefighter Leo Bennett making his way down from the top of the Half-Way-Tree Transport Centre in St Andrew on Tuesday. Bennett climbed to the top of the Transport Centre by himself in protest over alleged poor treatment faced by him and his colleagues in the Jamaica Fire Brigade. He spent more than five hours up there and only came down after he received a call from his wife.Jason Cross

"Don't even mention mental health. Every fireman, it's either they drink, smoke, or be a womaniser. Some a dem a mad out and a take all kinds of pills. Jamaica is a violent place and when you go to the inner city, if there is a firebombing or the place shot up, or a pickney body burn out, that filters into your head. When you go to an accident scene you don't know bodily waste different from brains. That gets in your head," said Bennett who had stood shirtless atop the building wearing a firefighter's safety helmet, waving a Jamaican flag with his right hand while holding a makeshift torch in the other.

"Look at this Jamaican flag; I am insanely in love with Jamaica. I am here to tell the Minister of Local Government and Rural Development Desmond McKenzie to name the time, the date, and the place for my execution and I will turn up. I am not afraid. A hearing is the least," he said.

"What about the children who are at risk ? What about the victims of accident scenes who are at risk? You don't see more firefighters out here with me because they are intimidated. Dem afraid," argued Bennett who said he has been a firefighter for 19 years.

Earlier, while he was atop the transport centre, Bennett spoke to veteran journalist Cliff Hughes on his Nationwide 90FM mid-morning talk show Cliff Hughes Online.

Jamaicans watch as suspended firefighter Sergeant Leo Bennett stages a protest atop the Half-Way-Tree Transport Centre in St Andrew on Tuesday morning. (Photo: Joseph Wellington)

Hughes, and Jamaica Fire Brigade Commissioner Stewart Beckford who had joined him in the radio station's studio, appealed to Bennett to descend the building.

"I am asking you, sir, to get off the ledge you are sitting on. Obviously it is not safe for you to be there," Beckford said to Bennett.

However, Bennett said "No", demanding that six of his colleagues who are currently on suspension for allegedly staging an illegal protest be reinstated.

"They are suffering more than I am suffering up here. Their risk is greater than my risk. I have to be referring firefighters' wives and other family members to counsellors and to Bellevue," he said.

Bellevue Hospital, which is located in east Kingston, offers psychiatric care.

Beckford responded, saying, "I can't respond to what he is saying in regards to him referring family members' wives to Bellevue. The fire brigade regulation is very clear: Where there is a breach, during an investigation, that individual who has committed that breach is likely to be suspended; that action was taken against all of the seven who participated in an illegal strike. Mr Bennett is one of the seven who was suspended. As a matter of fact, his matter was scheduled to be heard two times already and his attorney asked for it to be rescheduled. It is due to be heard tomorrow [Wednesday]. It is a matter we take seriously that, as far as we are concerned, brings discredit to the organisation," Bennett said.

"What we had was a bunch people going out on industrial action without union support at a time when there were discussions taking place between management and union representatives to see if we could work out an amicable solution for the 24-hour work shift system. They went out and took industrial action," he added.

BY JASON CROSS Observer staff reporter crossj@jamaicaobsever.com

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