Letters — 11 July 2018
John S. Briggs writes on National Fire Service

5 Unity Boulevard
City of Belmopan
Belize

July 5, 2018

Dear Editor,

I read with interest the article on equipment for the National Fire Service and would like to make a few comments. Every firefighting operation requires three things – equipment, trained personnel and most importantly an adequate supply of water. That is what is lacking in Belize. The water carried in the fire truck is intended only to start putting water on a fire whilst hoses are run to the nearest water source / hydrant.

As you are aware, a single hose uses 100 to 150 gallons per minute. Thus even the largest capacity truck of 1,000 gallons will supply less than ten hose minutes! The NFS is frequently castigated for rapidly running out of water when the municipalities/BWS should be castigated for not providing an adequate supply of water.

None of the municipal areas have more than one or two functioning hydrants. Hydrants should have the capacity to supply 500 gallons per minute at a reasonable pressure. I have been told that Orange Walk had an excellent system of hydrants throughout the central area – unfortunately most are now buried under “improved streets”.

Our capital had two or three hydrants per street, sadly through total lack of maintenance there are less than five functioning hydrants in the entire city. NFS personnel are afraid to turn on other hydrants for fear that they will not be able to close them off due to perished rubber gaskets.

In Belize City there are a number of hydrants, but the water pressure in the system is too low to supply the required 500 gallons per minute – it takes BWS a while to increase the pressure in order to meet that demand.

As a result, if the fire cannot be extinguished within the initial 10 minutes or so, the NFS has to locate a source of open water – canal, sea or lagoon — which can be accessed by a fire truck to suction water (less than 30 feet) in order to run hoses and pump water to the truck at the scene of the fire. This applies to all municipalities.

The concept of a water tanker to assist in supplying water has been around for at least 10 years, but no government has seen fit to finance one even for Belize City. A minor issue is that it might not be possible to navigate a 9,000-gallon tanker through the narrower streets of the city.

The Central Building Authority along with the Municipal Authority has the power, to require installation of hydrants in any subdivision of more that say ten houses and in any industrial or commercial building. It has the power to require every building of two or more floors to have at least two stairs/fire escapes on opposite sides of the building.

The recent fire in San Pedro would suggest that the occupants could not get out of the upper floor because the access stairs were on fire. Multi-storey buildings and large commercial buildings should have sprinkler systems as well as a hydrant for the NFS to use. One multistoried building on Coney drive was originally designed with only one metal interior staircase and no other fire escape – elevators should not be used when there is a fire.

The responsibility for maintenance of hydrants falls on the utility company – not the NFS.

Yes, much of the equipment is old – the ladder truck being the last NEW equipment purchased. At least one of the trucks is over 40 years old – it still runs and pumps water!

As with all equipment it is the maintenance that is the key – changing gaskets and hoses and fittings according to a sensible schedule. Unfortunately, in times of financial stringency, adequate funds are not provided for such maintenance, much less the purchase of additional equipment. One or more tanker trucks would be a temporary partial solution for Belize City.

In terms of trained personnel – it is difficult to justify increases in permanent establishment for any fire service. Many municipal areas in other countries depend entirely on volunteer / part-time firefighters – who are otherwise employed but on call when there is a fire.  There is little emphasis on volunteerism in our fair country. Belize has a small complement of untrained/partially trained young volunteers at each station. You may not be aware that there are stations in Belize that have only one firefighter on duty at any particular time, the other personnel turning out whenever there is a fire.

What it all comes down to – with all the equipment and all the personnel but no water supply – is that everyone is at risk and losses are high. Perhaps the insurance companies can influence developers and others to provide for the installation and maintenance of hydrants at no greater than 300 feet intervals throughout our municipal areas. That should be the goal.

Yours truly,
John S. Briggs

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