Tuesday, November 11, 2008


THIS WAS THE SCENE IN FRONT of 940 R. Hidalgo Street in Quiapo yesterday, about 14 hours after it was hit by a pre-dawn fire, which quickly spread to the building beside it. Both were two-story residential and commercial structures, made of light materials; causing the fire to spread rapidly, which reached the nearby abandoned Manuel L. Quezon University building.

No one was hurt in this fire that left about P2 million in property damages and several families homeless. Many residents, however, applauded the immediate response of the city's firefighters, including the many volunteer fire brigades with their gleaming trucks from all over Metro Manila. Their expeditious efforts contained the conflagration and minimized the extent of damages.

R. HIDALGO STREET WAS NAMED AFTER Felix Ressurreccion Hidalgo, one of the country's great artists of the 19th century. This street still shows, though in various degrees of decay, remnants of its old glory -- as Manila's premier residential street with rows of grand houses made of wood and stone.

However, back in those early days, fire-fighting was mostly of community or bayanihan effort. Tasked to drag the rickety fire wagon to a fire scene were the city's street sweepers, while volunteers helped in handling the hose, pumping the water, and searching for trapped victims.

There was also the ronda housed in a nipa hut with buckets of water, pails of sand, ladder and other firefighting equipment. Besides fighting fires, the ronda volunteers also acted as peace keepers; patrolling the community equipped with wooden clubs.

It wasn't until the 1890s when the very first motor fire engine arrived in the country, imported by the father of Don Teodoro Yangco, and manned by his own dock laborers. There were also the British merchants of Manila who organized themselves into a fire brigade; setting up their headquarters on Juan Luna Street in Binondo with an
acquired steam engine.

But as far as a brigade of professional firefighters in Manila was concerned, It was the American colonizers who began to establish it; comprised of American ex-soldiers and headed by Fire Chief Hugh Bonner. And under his watch, four stations were constructed: Station No. 1 (San Nicolas Fire Station), Station No. 2 (Sta. Cruz Fire Station), Station No. 3 (Paco Fire Station), and Station No. 4 (Intramuros Fire Station). At that time, the firefighting apparatus was still horse drawn.

Fire Brigade, Intramuros, Manila, 1900-1911
(University of Wisconsin Digital Collections)

The most famous fire station was Station No. 1 in San Nicolas. It had one of the first and finest gymnasiums, referred to as Manila's "Cradle of Boxing." American firemen of that station used to gather the neighborhood kids in the gym, furnish them with gloves, and make them slug it out for a purse collected from the station's firemen. Consequently, these kiddie prizefights spawned a bunch of professional boxers that would have its glory days in the 1920s.

AS A LOGICAL RESULT OF American policy to transfer the government's responsibility to the Filipinos, the first Filipino fire chief was appointed -- Jacinto Lorenzo -- on October 19, 1935, before the inauguration of the Commonwealth government.

Chief Lorenzo introduced the use of modern firefighting equipment and techniques similar to those used in America. He also reduced the schedule of duties of firemen from 4 straight days service with 7 hours day off and 15 hours night off to 48-hour duty and 24-hour off duty.

When Chief Lorenzo died in 1944 during the Japanese occupation, his assistant, Capt. Cipriano Cruz, was appointed as his replacement on May 11, 1944. Sadly, many firemen were massacred by the Japanese during the war.

Capt. Cruz rehabilitated the damaged fire stations when peace was restored after the war, and even increased its number to twelve. He also established the Firemen's Training School held at Tanduay Fire Station.

Enjoying a game of handball at Tanduay Fire Station in Quiapo, Manila

AT PRESENT, PURSUING A CAREER as a professional firefighter in Manila does not seem to be so enticing.

Manila Bulletin obtained records that showed while the Bureau of Fire Protection (BFP) has a total of 15,093 personnel -- with 11,689 assigned to actual firefighting -- the bureau only has 3,742 coats, 3,214 boots, 4,731 helmets, 1,324 gloves, and no trousers with suspenders at all.

As for the breathing apparatuses, while the BFP requires 2,922 breathing apparatuses for its personnel, it only has 105 available nationwide.

The article also mentioned the following:

BFP public information officer Fire Chief Insp. Rene Marcial said based on available data, firefighters -- particularly those who do the actual firefighting -- often end up with serious lung diseases. This is the result of their exposure to smoke whenever they respond to fire incidents.

At the same time, given their primodial role of saving people’s lives, firemen are duty-bound to enter burning buildings or houses if they suspect or if there are signs that there are victims trapped inside – even with insufficient protective gear or without a breathing apparatus.

Not only does the BFP suffer from shortages of protective gears for its personnel, it is also short on firefighting equipment.

Fire Supt. Enrique Linsangan recalled an incident when a firefighter died when he fell from the aerial ladder he was stepping on while trying to help contain a fire. It later turned out that the fire ladder was already dilapidated.

Another risk factor is the location of the fire scene and the culture of the people living in the area. Linsangan said there were past incidents when responding firemen were stabbed or attacked in some other way by fire victims who blamed them for failing to save the lives of their relatives or their properties.

Some people, desperate to save their house from fire, also resort to grabbing the firehoses from firemen and training them on their house.

There have also been cases when firefighters get stoned after arriving late at a fire scene or being accused of choosing which house to save.

With all these challenges, a firefighter must be physically fit to meet the hazards of his work and must have the stamina to engage in strenuous activities for hours with little time to rest, a fire officer said. He hastened to add that firefighters like him must learn to live one day at a time, treating each day as if it was their last.

With all the risks and challenges they face in order to save lives and properties, do firefighters get enough compensation?

The answer is a resounding "No." Most of those interviewed by the Manila Bulletin said they could hardly make both ends meet with their meager salary.

A neophyte firefighter receives P7,119 basic monthly pay and P3,500 allowance. But they actually receive less than P10,000 a month because of tax and other deductions.

Although firefighters have ranks similar to police officers, they receive less benefits from the government than their police counterparts.

Many firefighters are informal settlers. Those interviewed by the Manila Bulletin said with their measly salary, they could not provide fully for their families. They complained that while many government employees are given affordable housing by the government, there is no housing program offered yet to BFP personnel.

Read complete article here.

However, according to a
GMA News report, a bill seeking to modernize BFP has passed the committee level and will be up for plenary debate when Congress resumes session Nov. 10.

Essentially, House Bill 5228, if passed in to law, will create an P8-billion Fire Protection Modernization Trust Fund.

Furthermore, according to the report:

The bill is in line with state policy to ensure public safety and promote economic development by stopping destructive fires that result in loss of lives and property.

It aims to modernize and adequately equip the Bureau of Fire Protection (BFP), and make sure it is manned by competent and highly motivated personnel.

Also, it aims to acquire basic and modern firefighting equipment and facilities, especially in the local government units.

Under the proposal, the Fire Protection Modernization Program (FPMP) shall have key components to be implemented over a period of three years.

Read complete article here.

Scene from COMELEC building fire (March 10, 2007)

* * *


History of Firefighting - Bureau of Fire Protection

"The Fire Fighters" - from Manila, My Manila
by Nick Joaquin


A Fire in Quiapo

Aftermath: The COMELEC Fire

Manila's Volunteer Firefighters




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posted by Señor Enrique at 6:51 AM


Anonymous patrick said...

that's sad. families lost homes.

i haven't checked the place recently, i fear that i'd see antique houses in ashes.

November 12, 2008 6:19 AM  

Blogger nutart said...

thought-provoking, Eric! Firefighters especially in congested cities like Manila are more in the possibility of being active several times a month. Summer season is the most vulnerable.
I have only seen a neighbor of ours when it comes to fire. Fortunately, the houses here are quite far from each other but nevertheless when we helped put it out, it was very exciting. We are quite at odds with this irascible neighbor but for that moment, I'm sure he felt that he had neighbors indeed!

I have heard of firefighters in manila ask for money first before they would train their hoses on the houses nearby the burning one. Of course, Manila's firefighters usually get a better image! I read one of your post about the Binondo firefighters and I know that was one of them.

I also had the experience of getting too much fumes in my lungs...boy! you'd think you're about to get a severe stroke! Good thing, I intuitively drank a glass of water and that relieved me in a major way!

With this knowledge, I strongly believe that firefighters have the rights has humans to have protective gear and up to date equipment as well as training for their jobs! They're much like our soldiers...and then, so are these soldiers said to be ill-equipped. Sigh.

November 12, 2008 7:06 PM  

Blogger Señor Enrique said...

Hi Bernadette,

With a growing number of efficient volunteer firefighters in Manila, I think the days of corrupt firemen is now a thing of the past; however, in talking with some residents in the area of this Hidalgo Street, fire, I was told that a resident had offered a fireman chief on the scene a large sum of money to train their hoses on his building so as to prevent it from catching fire. But then again the great number of volunteer fire brigades on the scene helped contain the blaze.

Much like New Yorkers who are perceived as aloof and indifferent, human beings in general respond and give a helping hand as witnessed by your neighbor :)

Yes, our BFP firefighters ought to be well-paid and well-equipped!

Thanks, Bernadette :)

November 13, 2008 8:07 AM  

Blogger Señor Enrique said...

If not by fire, many of these old and decaying houses are being torn down to make way for new structures, Patrick -- such as the high-rise condo building a few meters from this fire scene.

November 13, 2008 8:09 AM  

Anonymous jhay said...

Whoah! I didn't know you were there too. I passed by that place with a friend at around 4pm while looking for Avenue Photo Supply store to pick up my Nikon D40.

The firefighters were still there and dousing some ambers and flames down.

Always scary theses fires are, good thing no one died in the accident.

November 16, 2008 7:26 AM  

Blogger Señor Enrique said...

Congratulations on your D40, Jhay!

Whoa! I was there at exactly the same time ... hehehe.

Yes, glad there wasn't any human casualty.

November 16, 2008 8:05 AM  

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Life in Manila as observed by a former New Yorker who with a laptop and camera has reinvented himself as a storyteller. Winner of the PHILIPPINE BLOG AWARDS: Best Photo Blog in 2007 and three Best Single Post awards in 2008.


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