Ex-senior officer: Fire Service plagued by years of neglect

The Woodbrook Fire Station, one of the many stations without a fire tender as seen on April 4.  - ROGER JACOB
The Woodbrook Fire Station, one of the many stations without a fire tender as seen on April 4. - ROGER JACOB

CLAIMS of mismanagement and neglect of the Fire Service, along with poor maintenance and misuse of vehicles by fire officers, have been blamed as major factors for the current state of the service.

Fire-fighters say they have been struggling to keep up with the demands of the job, dousing numerous bush fires, homes on fire, and other emergencies owing to lack of equipment and fire tenders.

Within recent years there has been a delay in the emergency response time because of a lack of equipment which has compromised the safety of people and their assets.

In the past, the Occupation, Safety and Health Agency have issued prohibition notices to close several stations owing to structural deficiencies and electrical problems.

But even with a wall of obstacles, fire officers have managed to save the country a little over $1.6 billion, according to data from the Fire Prevention Unit between 2019 and 2022.

The need for more resources has intensified, especially after victims perish in residential fires.
The most recent tragedy occurred on April 1, in Siparia, where Kemba Morris, 42, and her eight-year-old daughter Zaya died in a house fire after they were trapped by burglar proofing. The incident prompted the Prime Minister to issue a public appeal for greater awareness by homeowners who live in burglar-proofed homes.

A distress call to the Siparia Fire Station was made after 5 pm, minutes after the fire ignited, but the Penal Fire Station had to respond because the Siparia station does not have a functional fire truck.

In the aftermath, Fire Services Association president Leo Ramkissoon lashed out at the government for failing to provide the necessary resources which could have prevented the Siparia tragedy.

Derelict vans parked at the Woodbrook Fire Station on April 4. - Photo by Angelo Marcelle

In separate interviews, two retired members of the Fire Service executive surmised that neglect, unkept promises and insufficient was responsible for the deterioration of the service.

Ramkissoon said of 25 stations throughout TT, there are eight operating without a fire truck. These stations are Belmont, Morvant, Chaguaramas, Chaguanas, Santa Cruz, San Juan, Siparia and Point Fortin. On April 6, trucks were assigned to the San Juan and Four Roads, Maraval stations.

These trucks also carry protective gear and other life-saving equipment for fire-fighters. Over the years, damaged fire trucks and other vehicles have been left to rot at some of these stations.
Ramkissoon said the service has been running short on trucks, breathing apparatus and without proper infrastructure for some time.

One breathing-apparatus unit can cost as much as $75,000. One fire truck costs approximately $2 million and it usually took 18 months to procure a custom-made fire truck suited for TT.
One retired senior fire officer, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said the fire service has not been treated with the same urgency of the Defence Force and other arms of the protective services.

The officer hopes the Siparia incident will bring about some reform in the service.

“The fire service has been operating in an administrative building that was built in the 1950s when the fire service had 60 per cent of the manpower it has now. And for over 10 years we have been trying to get an administrative building.”

“We have tried everything in our power. We went out and found an administrative building, which reached as far as Parliament and it was turned down.

“All the other services are afforded all kind of infrastructure. Police and Defence Force probably have 20 buildings each in Port of Spain.

“They want to get good performance but they don’t want to provide the resources for the fire officers.

“When the fire service is painted in a bad light it doesn’t feel good. I feel a sense of failure and loss. So many things could and should have been done. The focus is on crime-fighting and not fire-fighting when this service saves lives and saves the state billions each year.”

The Fire Prevention Unit data shows fire officers responded to 3,019 structural fires between 2019 and 2022. It showed 2019 had the highest number of structural fire occurrences with 920 incidents.

In 2022, the fire department responded to fires at nine government buildings, 592 residential, 50 businesses and three schools and eight industrial buildings.

That same year, the country lost $161,264,650.70 in structural damage. But through efforts of the fire service, TT saved $962,389,576.70 from a total value of over a billion in assets. In 2021, $199,991,451 worth of assets was saved: $184,998,559.35 in 2020 and $264,230,087 in 2019.

The officer said 300 new sets of breathing apparatus were purchased between 2012 and 2013, and there were attempts to repair old ones.

“We were getting the parts for them (breathing apparatus) and it was expensive to maintain because you had to change the batteries in these, every three months.

“So it’s not a case where the breathing apparatus went bad and we didn’t do anything.”

He said the procurement unit was also looking at a cheaper and easier to maintain breathing apparatus options.

“It’s unfair to be crying mismanagement on the TT Fire Service when there are so many records there of the fires service trying to procure items, including infrastructure to run an effective and efficient service and we have been turned down at every quarter.”

In 2017 the service procured 12 fire trucks. The average lifespan for one fire truck is between seven to ten years.

“Over the years we’ve had a number of them being destroyed; parts to repair them weren’t easily forthcoming. Some people feel because we buy these trucks in Europe, there are problems getting parts but there’s local agents here that source the parts. But parts were scarce during covid19, so we ended up with a number of them down,” the senior officer said.

He said $140 million was later approved to purchase new equipment and trucks. A large chunk of that money was supposed to go towards more trucks. However, this money was never disbursed, he claimed.

The officer admitted a significant number of the vehicles (not fire trucks) were destroyed in road accidents. He said there was also an attempt to do “systematic maintenance” of old vehicles but this did not last long as refurbished vehicles often failed.

In a radio interview on April 6, Chief Fire Officer Arnold Bristo accused officers for some of the damaged vehicles owned by the service.

The closed gates at the Belmont Fire Station as seen on April 4. -Photo by Roger Jacob

In August 2022, National Security Minister Fitzgerald Hinds was reported saying there will be a comprehensive maintenance plan for equipment and fire tenders.

He was speaking at the commissioning ceremony for new vans and ladders handed over to the service.

At that time, Hinds said Cabinet had approved the purchase of custom-built water tenders, particularly for the Woodbrook Fire Station.

These custom-built appliances will include the dispensation of foam and it will have specialised rescue equipment.

Stations with problems

Wrightson Road, Chaguanas, Scarborough and Mon Repos Fire Stations have no more than two water-carrying fire trucks.

In 2015, OSH issued a prohibition notice to have the Point Fortin Fire Station closed. In 2017, it was relocated to a dilapidated house-like bungalow at Clifton Hill. This was supposed to be a temporary move. In 2019, former National Security Minister Stuart Young, together with former

Point Fortin MP Edmund Dillon promised to bring relief to the officers. In 2023, construction on the new station is at an advanced stage.

Woodbrook and Siparia fire stations are in dire need of immediate repairs. Woodbrook’s station is also operating without a fire truck, Newsday was told. And Siparia is under resourced.
Tobago’s Scarborough Fire Station/headquarters has been plagued by several challenges over the past five years.

Work continues at the Scarborough Fire Station in Tobago earlier this year. -

A 2019, fire partially destroyed the Scarborough Fire Station. An investigation showed an electrical problem on the second floor was the cause of the fire. The Scarborough fire officers were crammed into the limited space at the Crown Point Fire Station.

Three years later it remains closed waiting for the installation of lights and other fixtures.
The trucks at the Crown Point Fire Station are deteriorating from being directly exposed to sea blast. It needs an upgrade as well.

The Arima Fire Station, which serves the north-eastern region and part of the East-West Corridor, has one fire truck.

Mon Repos Fire Station is experiencing electrical problems. In 2018, the station has had two electrical fires which were brought under control by a fire extinguisher.

Savonetta Fire Station in Couva is dealing with sewage issues. Chaguaramas Fire Station has infrastructure and security issues.

The roofs at the Piarco, Santa Cruz, Sangre Grande, Chaguanas and Roxborough fire stations are leaking and mould is forming between the concrete. The Roxborough station's condition is concerning as it was recently built at a cost of $37 million and commissioned in August, 2020.

Budgetary allocations: 2013-2022

In 2013, a total of $56.5 million was allocated for upgrade and expand the physical facilities and an additional $16 million for the purchase and refurbishment of vehicles and procurement of equipment. This money was to facilitate the start of the construction of the Arouca, Chaguaramas, San Fernando, Woodbrook and Mayaro stations.

In 2014, government allocated $26 million to commence construction of fire stations in Mayaro and San Fernando with an additional $10 million for the preparation of designs for the fire stations in Tunapuna, Point Fortin, Penal, Wrightson Road and Black Rock, Tobago.

In the Public Sector Investment Programme (PSIP) 2015-2017, through a three-year programme, government allocated $183.5 million for the upgrade and improvement works to existing fire stations, purchase of equipment, refurbishment of equipment and the redevelopment of the water distribution system.

It said the fire service will need $1.234 billion for the construction and outfitting of the Mayaro, Arouca, Lady Hailes, Chaguaramas, Woodbrook, Tunapuna, Point Fortin, Penal and Wrightson Road, Port of Spain stations.

At that time, $13.5 million in design-consultancy contracts were awarded for the Penal and Arouca stations.

By the end of 2017, the government cleared payment of commitments from previous years in totalling $44.5 million to facilitate operationalisation of the Mayaro station.

The government had spent $36.5 million on ongoing works on the Penal station at that time.
Additionally, in fiscal 2017, $1 million was used start the procurement of vehicles and equipment and $1.5 million was used for the refurbishment of vehicles.

In 2018, $101.8 million was allocated with an investment of $25 million for the acquisition of vehicles and equipment for the new stations, a further $10 million to initiate construction of the Point Fortin station.

Additionally, an allocation of $2.5 million will be invested for the refurbishment of existing vehicles to further complement the fleet.

Also the programme said $2 million would have been provided for ongoing remedial works of the Couva North, Crown Point, Siparia and Princes Town stations.

PSIP had no allocation to the fire service in 2019.

In 2021, government allocated $20 million to begin the construction of the Arouca and Point Fortin stations under the programme for the construction/reconstruction of fire stations to build 17 fire stations.

It further allocated $2 million for the purchase of new vehicles and refurbishment of existing equipment for a further sum of $2 million.

There was a further $9.8 million allocated for upgrade works at the Crown Point Fire Station.
And in 2022, the Fire Service was allocated $60 million.


"Ex-senior officer: Fire Service plagued by years of neglect"

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