Driven by a burning desire

Injuries and fatalities do little to shake the determination of the city’s firemen, for whom the numbers that really count are the lives they have saved

Eight months into her marriage, 28-year-old Shivani had developed a habit of waiting for her husband Amit Baliyan’s call early in the morning when he was on duty as a fire operator at the office of Delhi Fire Services (DFS).

The morning of January 2, 2020, was no different. Amit was in office and Shivani was waiting for his 7 a.m. call to start her day. As her wait stretched from minutes to hours, Shivani knew something was not right. Her cell phone rang finally but the call was from Amit’s office. The 29-year-old fire operator had been crushed under the debris of a four-storey building housing a battery factory at Peeragarhi in Udyog Nagar.

A sudden blaze inside the premises caused an explosion and parts of the building collapsed, trapping a civilian and 18 fire brigade personnel. While the rest of his colleagues were rescued, Amit’s body was recovered around 1 p.m. He was rushed to a hospital where the doctors declared him brought dead.

Sitting at her house in north-east Delhi’s Meet Nagar, Shivani recalled, “We had seen on television that his colleagues had been rescued. It gave me hope that Amit too would survive but that was not meant to be. I knew the risks involved in his job but we never expected such an incident to happen.”

Anuj Baliyan, Amit’s younger brother, said their father, a Delhi Police officer, kept telling them that Amit would be fine. “Our eyes were glued to the TV for some news on his rescue. Instead, we learnt that his body had been recovered from the debris,” said Anuj.

Shivani, who works as a constable with the Uttar Pradesh Police, and Amit’s mother have received the stipulated ₹1 crore ex gratia, in addition to ₹50 lakh monetary help from the DFS.

‘Unfulfilled’ promise

Anuj said the Delhi Government’s promise to provide the same post to Amit’s kin has remained unfulfilled. “I have written to several Government officers and even to the Lieutenant-Governor (Anil Baijal), but nothing has come through.”

DFS chief Atul Garg, however, said the matter is under process.

As many as 156 DFS personnel have suffered non-fatal injuries in various rescue operations between January 2018 and October 11 this year, consisting of 98 fire operators, 25 leading firemen, 13 sub-officers, 14 station officers, two assistant divisional officers, and four divisional officers.

Amit is one of the seven deaths on duty in the DFS since 2018. Recently, fire operator Praveen Kumar, 30, who had joined the service in 2019, succumbed to burn injuries he sustained while dousing a fire in a building in Bhorgarh, Narela.

These deaths, though alarming, do little to shake the determination of the firefighters, who are guided by a burning desire to rescue as many lives as they can.

Serious injuries

Mahavir Singh, 57, posted at Jawala Heri fire station as a leading fireman, recalled an incident in Chandni Chowk in 2010 when a major fire broke out in a building. “My colleague and I were inside the building when the blast happened. An LPG cylinder exploded and the structure collapsed on us. Both of us sustained serious injuries,” said Mr. Singh, who suffered 70% burns in the incident.

He had to undergo plastic surgery on parts of his face. “I returned to duty after nine months. I can’t sit idle for long. Firefighting makes me happy, nothing else matters,” he said.

Sharing one of his most cherished memories, Mr. Singh said, “In a building fire incident at Kalkaji, a girl and her dog were trapped inside their house. I entered the premises as my colleagues extinguished the flames around me. I managed to save both the lives that day.”

“Whenever a big incident happens, I feel hurt if I am not part of the rescue operation,” said Mr. Singh.

Even on his off days, if he hears a siren, Mr. Singh comes running from the staff quarters to check what happened. “My children ask me to stay away from major fires but I cannot stop myself if there is a big incident,” he said, adding, “It has often happened that a lot of my colleagues have cut down on their leaves only to be part of a major rescue operation.”

‘Tough as the Army’

For fire operator Manjeet Rana, 34, posted at Kirti Nagar fire station, it was a choice between the Army or the fire service. “Due to some documentation issues, I couldn’t make it to the Army but thankfully I got through as a fireman,” he said.

Mr. Rana, who was also part of the Peeragarhi rescue operation last year, said that it became his most important mission ever since he joined the service two years ago. “After the building collapsed, I remained under the debris for several hours and was rescued around noon. All my veins were blocked. My left eye and right shoulder had to be operated upon. I still struggle with body pain,” he said.

Mr. Rana said once a fire call is made, a team reaches the location and it has to quickly analyse the situation. “Usually, two teams are formed — one that does the firefighting and the other that rescues the trapped persons. We also have to ensure that there is limited monetary loss due to the blaze,” he said.

Often, problems arise when the fire engine is not able to enter the narrow lanes of a locality, in which case the firemen extend the hose up to several metres in order to reach the spot, Mr. Rana said.

“A fireman dies either after being burnt or being crushed. All we have in our defence is an extinguisher. Does that make our job any less tough than the Army?” he asked.

Narrow escape

Station officer Satyawan Singh, who joined the service as a fire operator in 1990, said he doesn’t bother much about getting burn injuries.

The 56-year-old, who was also part of the firefighting mission inside the Peeragarhi factory along with Amit, Mr. Singh, and Mr. Rana, said that the explosion pushed him aside and he crashed into a wall, narrowly escaping death. “All the heat and dust from the blast affected my eyes and I was not able to see anything but I somehow I managed to escape safely along with my equipment,” said Mr. Satyawan, a father of four children.

Hailing from Panipat in Haryana, Mr. Satyawan works a 72-hour shift before getting a 24-hour rest period.

Recalling another incident, he said once a slum cluster near the Yamuna caught fire and he, along with three other firemen, carried out the rescue operation. “By the time we had rescued all persons, the blaze had spread so much that all four of us had to jump into the river to save ourselves,” he said.

However, Mr. Satyawan claimed that it was his passion to save lives of people. “Jaise fauji border pe reh kar hamare desh ki raksha karta hain, vaise hi hum logon ki aag se suraksha karte hain [Like the Army protects the country from enemies, we protect people from fire].”

Amit, Mr. Singh, Mr. Rana, and Mr. Satyawan are among the recipients of this year’s President’s Fire Service Medal for Gallantry for their commendable work during the Peeragarhi fire incident.

The DFS chief agreed that the job of a fireman comes with its fair share of risks. “In Delhi, most buildings function without an NOC (no objection certificate) and while the building may have been sanctioned for a particular purpose, it is later revealed that some other work has been going on all the while,” Mr. Garg said.

Often, multiple activities take place inside a single building — “like a factory godown is set up on the first floor, the workers cook their food on the second floor and the third floor is meant for them to take rest”, said Mr. Garg, adding, “You never know when or how a blast will occur in the property in such cases.”

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