Fire Service to buy cheaper, more durable equipment

Derelict fire tenders left to rot at the Chaguanas Fire Station.  -
Derelict fire tenders left to rot at the Chaguanas Fire Station. -

THE Fire Service is currently exploring cost-effective solutions in procuring breathing apparatus not only to manage costs but to ensure the longevity and effectiveness of the equipment, Chief Fire Officer Arnold Bristo told Sunday Newsday.

In a sit-down interview on April 12, Bristo said part of the goal is to procure equipment from manufacturers with durable and cost-effective vehicles.

His comments came after complaints about a lack of fire tenders and other equipment in the service and the inability for officers to respond more effectively.

Sunday Newsday understands TT uses American-based National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) self-contained breathing apparatus.

One unit can cost as much as $75,000. Between 2012-2013, the Fire Service bought 300 of these units but a decade later, Bristo said, many of them are not in use because they are too expensive to repair and maintain.

“It begs the question ‘Why do we go back to make the same mistake.’ If we look at the system and understand it then we take this step to correct it.”

“Those sets that cost that kind of money comes with a very hefty maintenance tag, where every couple of months we have to be buying batteries and you will have to replace these things and replace all other things.

“That is a cost that fire departments around the world moving away from. There are other sets that you could consider, that are much cheaper, that is more cost-effective in terms of being able to maintain them.”

But Leo Ramkissoon, president of the Fire Service Association, is against this move. He claimed the service will be switching to the European standard (EN) breathing apparatus.

“NFPA sets would have communication devices built into the sets, so officers inside could easily communicate for help. The European set does have the advanced technological components to improve and safety and effectiveness of rescues.”

Ramkissoon claimed the proposal to change manufacturers for breathing apparatus was never discussed with fire-fighters.

“Maintenance is not the problem. The maintenance programme is what needs reform,” he said.

“There’s a saying ‘Good thing no cheap and cheap thing no good.’ The CFO must remember that he will not be using these new apparatuses when they come. He is retiring next year. It’s the man on the ground that will be using them,” Ramkissoon said.

Bristo said he is also working to make poor procurement practices a thing of the past.

“In looking at where we are, at this point, we didn't arrive here overnight, because it would have been a series of issues that would have led to this. Back in 2016-2017, we would have gone over tenders for vehicles based on a decision by Cabinet as far back as 2014 and that decision was for the construction of several fire stations – Mayaro, Penal, Lady Hailes and Chaguaramas and Woodbrook fire stations.”

It’s reported that approximately $145 million was approved for this process.

“During that process, the company would have been given the green light by the government and would have gone out for tenders. The process was flawed. There is written evidence to support that report on the tenders evaluation committee dated February 15, 2017.”

This is why a number of newly-built fire stations would have been opened without fire tenders and other vehicles. Other vehicles had to be used to assist these stations. This caused serious stress and irreparable damage on existing equipment and other appliances.

In this file photo, Chief Fire Officer Arnold Bristo was captured on Abercromby Street, Port of Spain on February 21. - File Photo/ JEFF K. MAYERS

To prevent a recurrence, Bristo is looking into the existing system to see where it is broken, and then taking the necessary steps to correct it.

“To correct this it means we must have a systematic approach in fixing the problems...We owe the people of TT a response, regardless of the situation.”

In 2022, the Fire Service ordered breathing apparatus air trailers, rescue boats, and a chemical industrial tender.

Bristo said the country should start seeing improvement in the service by the end of 2023.

In 2022, the service spent $18 million – an addition to the $30 million approved by Cabinet to procure new equipment and vehicles in 2020. Another $2 million was approved to purchase breathing apparatus.

And recently, Cabinet approved a further $30 million to purchase more equipment this year.

The Central Tenders Board has published an invitation for the supply of one fully equipped water tender, breathing apparatus trailer, hose layer, fully equipped ambulance and a double cab pick-ups.

There are also plans to upgrade Tobago’s entire fleet in the future.

Last week, the Minister of National Security Minister Fitzgerald Hinds said resolving issues affecting the efficiency of the Fire Service is a priority for his ministry.

Two new fire tenders from the Netherlands are on the way to Trinidad.

The inefficiencies shot into the spotlight after Kemba Morris, 42, and her eight-year-old daughter Zaya died in a fire on April 1 after they were trapped by burglar-proofing at their home.

An autopsy showed they died from smoke inhalation. They were laid to rest on April 13. At the time of the fire, there were no fire trucks in Siparia and the Penal fire station had to respond.

Their deaths sparked public criticism of the fire service operations. Ramkisssoon then called Bristo to apologise for comments made over the way the equipment had been handled by officers and the cost incurred to repair damaged vehicles.

Asked if he would apologise, Bristo said he stands by his comment and will not “apologise for the truth – even if it hurts...Getting in accidents as a fire-fighter is a worldwide issue. It’s inherent with the risk of the job. These things happen.

“Some of the incidents in which accidents happen may be because of carelessness, but sometimes in terms of exuberance in responding, lapses in judgment could occur.

“But, how do you explain damaging another tyre leaving the scene?”

Commenting on the matter in Siparia, Bristo said, “It's unfortunate what happened in the fire where the Morris' would have lost their lives. But even if Siparia appliance was there, and they arrived on the scene, the outcome could have been the same because there are conditions that would affect the fire fighting and the material and the building...”

Two weeks before the incident, Siparia’s fire truck was sent for repairs. Repairs on the truck have been completed and the appliance was expected to be returned to the station this weekend.

“One that constantly haunts me is the children losing their lives in Maraval, and this is something I promised that must not happen in TT again, and yet we have it.”

He was referring to an incident on July 26, 2021, where Ezekiel, 17, Faith, six, and Kayden Burke, three, died trying to escape a fire at their Rookery Nook, Maraval, home.

Bristo said there had been a delay in firefighters' response time for that incident as well. But speaking to Newsday on Friday a relative of the children said while they agree fire officers were late, they want the officers to know that the family never blamed the fire service for the outcome and remains thankful for their efforts.

Bristo said, “The thing is in fire fighting even if you have all the conditions, all the equipment is not gonna allow the firefighter to save every life...” He called on the public to work closely with the fire service to safeguard their home and their families.

Until then, the service will be working to narrow the risk gaps.

“Ideally, the station is supposed to have water tender water, tanker and ambulance and the utility. We have not been able to have such a complement since I've been in the service at any station but we are working towards coming to that.”


"Fire Service to buy cheaper, more durable equipment"

More in this section