Inside the fire brigade control room, where Pankaj Sharma has been stationed since Sunday, emergency number 101 rings incessantly. But most calls since the fire tragedy in Ludhiana have not been about fire incidents, but to know the fate of nine firemen who were trapped in the building as it collapsed.
Not sure of the bodies that have been identified, Pankaj’s eyes well up as he answers the phone. Sitting next to him, cleaner Raj Kumar does not utter a word.
In between calls, he tells another colleague Naresh Kumar to handle the next call. While Naresh and Pankaj were deputed at the control room, Raj Kumar was put on standby duty to take calls in the office. Even after losing nine of their colleagues, the short staffed fire department has been working overtime.
“I am not even able to guide relatives. Our colleagues are trapped and I am here to perform my duty. I can’t sit back and cry. Its duty first,” said Pankaj when The Indian Express called him on Monday night. Many residents have also been calling to offer their condolences.
At noon on Tuesday, the day’s first fire call came from Saidan Chowk where a fire had broken out at a hosiery shop. The staff deployed at Suffian Chowk (where building collapsed) were immediately rushed to the spot.
Firemen Surjit Singh and Ramandeep Singh reached the site and flames were doused in few minutes. Both then returned at the factory site soon after.
Surjit said,”Twenty-five of our staff members were on duty when the building collapsed…We were sent at the site after that and we are at the site for more than 24 hours. It is hard to see the crushed bodies of our colleagues, and at the same time perform our duty as well. But we are into emergency services, so have to be at service always.”
Naresh, deputed at the control room, had sustained 30 per cent burns in May this year in one such firefighting operation. He is still recovering from his injuries and hence has been posted at the control room for the time being. “I got state award on Independence Day for my services, but we need life security, better equipment for firefighting,” he said.
Surjit added,” I got uniform three years back, so what can we expect about other facilities. It is high time that administration should wake up and think about the safety of firemen.”
The rest reserve staff was deputed with CM Capt Amarinder Singh’s vehicle and one-fire tender was with the Nagar Kirtan which was taken out Tuesday.
Naresh added,”If general public can take care of fire safety norms, fire brigade department’s work will be restricted to bigger accidents. Looking at the haphazard construction of the city at times we find difficulty in entering many locations.”
Raj Kumar, who finally spoke after a long silence, said, “People consider us supermen. They feel we should reach at the spot immediately after the call, everyone knows the traffic situation and also how much education people have in giving way to a fire brigade vehicle.” Pankaj recalled,”About 3 years back, in Mochpura Bazar, people had stopped us from coming out of a building which was under fire with old furniture and sacks. This after water in our fire tender ran out. It was Diwali night and fire tenders were sent at various places. I still can’t forget how with great difficulty, we both came out safely.”
The staff called upon the government for better facilities and at the same time felt that masses also need to realise the dignity of firemen on duty.