Davao needs air assets to combat fire unreachable by fire trucks

DAVAO CITY (MindaNews / 9 April) – The Bureau of Fire Protection here needs air assets to fight fires in areas that cannot be reached by the city’s firetrucks.

In an interview Monday after the weekly Kapehan sa SM in SM City Annex, Insp. Nestor Jimenez, of the local BFP office, said that the Air Force augmented choppers that are used for firefighting cannot operate at night in the absence of night vision equipment.

Jimenez said the air assets would have helped put out the fire that damaged around 1,000 houses and left 3,112 families without homes in a fire that spread out in Barangays 22 and 23 last Friday.

The official said the city’s existing firetrucks encountered several problems in responding to the fire.

The narrow roads, he said, made it impossible for some of the firetrucks to approach some areas. “We were not able to reach the source of the fire immediately since our trucks could not pass through the shortest route to the area,” Jimenez said.

Even with the long route through Isla Verde via the other side of the barangay, the fire had already spread out to nearby houses. Some panicked residents also interfered with the operation and damaged a fire team’s hose.

Jimenez added that small firetrucks called Penetrator units were able to reach the area but were overwhelmed with the severity of the fire.

The fire inspector said that ideally, the BFP would have access to air assets such as firefighting aircraft capable of releasing foam from the air. He said this could be accomplished from fixed wing aircraft or through choppers.

Asked whether the BFP has already requested the air assets, Jimenez said this was already part of the Philippine Air Force modernization program.

“But we don’t have the budget for it,” he said, lamenting the pace it takes for the Armed Forces to update its equipment.

According to Lt. Col. Patrick Cinco, public affairs chief of the Army’s 10th Infantry Division, the available aircraft at the Tactical Operations Group 11 are only for insertion, extraction and materiel delivery.

TOG 11 has NG520 attack helicopters and Hueys, but these have no firefighting capabilities, he pointed out.

Cinco said that it will be up to the commanding generals of the Army, Air Force and Marines, as well as the Secretary of Defense, to decide whether they can procure additional aircraft for the purpose.

The AFP transformation road map, Cinco said, includes the procurement of the firefighting aircraft, but he is not sure how soon it can be realized.

“As of now, we are focusing on equipment for external defense, such as artillery, M4 rifles and tanks,” he said.

Cinco said he estimates the aircraft to cost at least $30 million each.

In an interview, City Public Safety and Security Command Center (PSSCC) chief Frank Villaroman said that all cities need air assets like fixed wing aircraft or helicopters that could augment existing city equipment for firefighting.

At the moment, he said the city can only make do with daytime operations of the Air Force’s Bell UH1 Hueys as its air assets. But Villaroman admitted that the Hueys were not night operations capable.

Jimenez said city officials and members of the BFP will be meeting this week to identify lapses in the response to last Friday’s fire.

It would be up to Mayor Rodrigo Duterte and the city council to decide whether the city needs aircraft and whether there is a budget for it, he added.

Villaroman said he was thankful for the additional help that was provided by nearby boats with firefighting equipment that helped last Friday.

“We had maritime assets nearby that helped douse the villages that were on fire,” he said.

But the fire had spread quickly because the houses in the areas were made of highly combustible materials.

Last Friday, the BFP raised the general alarm around 8:30 pm.

Fire out was declared at 1:30 a.m. , five hours and 1,000 burned homes later.

Jimenez said he hopes the City Planning and Development Office, as well as the City Mayor’s Offce, would consider plotting a subdivision scheme that would allow for better access for firetrucks as well as the provision of fire hydrants in cases of emergency.

He said coverage for fire prevention was high for the city, with the presence of the PSSCC and coordination with different units.

Highrises and other buildings, Jimenez noted, are safe from fires as firemen could readily respond and get near the source of fire.

It is the urban poor settlements with narrow alleys that prevent the firetrucks from entering the area, Jimenez noted.

He said at least 16 barangays have Penetrator units, which is under the barangay’s control.

Asked whether the BFP is considering investing in Penetrator units, Jimenez said it was prioritizing firetrucks instead.

He said the BFP has 19 operational firetrucks. But it only has 230 personnel, barely half of the 600 needed firefighters, he added.