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August 24
16:19 2018

“I work at the Ladyville Fire Station bro. But mien, the truck here can’t go far if not it starts running hot.If we respond to Boom cutoff we might have to pull off the road, shutdown for a while so the temperature gauge goes down before proceeding. This is bad bro. We as firefightersare tired of complaining to our superiors, bro, but it seems to fall on deaf ears.”

–Facebook message from an anonymous firefighter, July 22, 2018

There was yet another fire in San Pedro on Saturday, August 4th, 2018 in which 10 homes were destroyed. This fire came less than two months after there was national outrageover the loss of four Belizeanlivesas a result of a horrible fire in the very same municipality.

Belizeans are a really complacent and docile people. It is my view that this is so because of the political patronage system that has been built and supported by both political parties since our independence. Any criticism, no matter how constructive is viewed as an attack on the ruling party which then authorizes the organs of the state to punish the source of said criticism. The punishment for such criticism is at once economic and severe. And if that weren’t bad enough it often extends to the family members of the critic. Such actions are meant to teach the rest of us a lesson. And that lesson is that once elected the politicians become God-like and therefore they ought to be beyond reproach.

Had the people of San Pedro been unceasing in their criticism of a crumbled and ineffective fire service, perhaps we would not have lost those four lives. Had the people of Belize demanded good governance from Belmopan, GOB would have had to make better useof our limited resources so as to provide the basic social infrastructure,which includes an adequately staffed and resourced Fire Department. My point is that in as much as we would like to heap blame, anger and criticism on Ministers Castro and Heredia and indeed “the Government,” we cannot do so without also blaming ourselves. We as a people failed ourselves by shirking our responsibility as good citizens to demand better from our political leaders.

Surely it must be clear to all by now that an effective fire department is essential to public safety. The fact that our Fire Department is so deficient is a direct reflection on us as a people. Oftentimes when there are fires, such as those in San Pedro, it is the firefighters who come in for the bulk of the public flogging, and most unfairly I might add. The National Fire Service is a creature of the Government and it must compete with other agencies for what are becoming even more scarce resources. Since services such as firefighting are for all intents and purposes “standby services,” (they are only use if there is an actual emergency) theyoften end up all the way down on the list of priorities.

It stands to reason that if the Fire Department is not properly resourced, and such lack of resources leads to a catastrophe, the leaders of the Fire Department should capitalize on the public outcry (although fleeting) to harness greater investment by GOB. However, this is hardly the case. The leaders of the Fire Department seem more concerned about pandering to political leaders than fighting for the resources necessary to properly dotheir job. The real losers in all this,of course, isthe general public and the firefighters who must respond to fires completely unprepared through no fault of theirs.

It has to be hard to be a firefighter when you are asked to take on such a huge responsibility and then be completely neglected: trucks that are as old as Moses; hoses that have more holes than a pincushion; and running out of water before you can even begin to fight the fire. The Fire Chief said that a third of the water in the responding truck in San Pedro was used just to charge the hose! No wonder morale in the Department is at an all time low. How can we expect our firefighters to be sufficiently motivated when we submerge them in such a morale-sapping environment? It is about time that we begin to press for a better fire service as its current state is a national embarrassment.

One thing that struck me in the aftermath of the fire was the number of persons displaced: a reported 87 people. If indeed the NEMO reports are right that is an average of 8.7 persons per structure;almost three times the average size household (3.1) for San Pedro according to the 2010 Census. Why is this? Surely 8.7 persons living in a single house has to be a lot uncomfortable. Decent, affordable housing is a persisting national challenge and in San Pedro, the fastest growing municipality in Belize (a mind blowing 63.89% since 2010) the problem is even worse. The two fires in San Pedro speak to the ugly truth about life for the ordinary Belizeans on the Island and the fact that the Town Council has failed to properly manage the construct industry.

The second thing that struck me in the aftermath of the two San Pedro fires was a declaration by both Ministers Castro (direct responsibility for the Fire Service) and Heredia (Area Rep) that BTL has pledged to donate a fire truck. Yes BTL! Call it politics if you will but how can we as a nation be so much in debt and still have 30 year old fire pumps in the fire service? How can we, after borrowing more than $3 billion, not afford to buy modern firefighting equipment so much so that our Fire Department ends up at the mercy of the telecommunications company?

Fire fighting is a complicated and dangerous business in the normal course. We have made it even more so because of the meagre resources assigned to our firefighters. Poor urban planning and erratic enforcement of building codes adds even further to the challenge of effective fire fighting. My fellow Belizeans, national development requires discipline, leadership and courage, the San Pedro fires have shown us that we are failing on all fronts.

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