Firefighters Accused of Extortion Back on Job

Facing a shortage of qualified firefighters for the upcoming dry season, the Phnom Penh Mu­nicipal Fire Office has reinstated two firefighters suspended last year on accusations of extorting money from fire victims.

The two returned to work last week after the Ministry of Interior granted fire office Chief Suon So­phe­ak’s request to reinstate them, Suon Sopheak said Tues­day.

Ath Chhoeng and Tauch Vuthy were suspended last year after victims of a fire in Tuol Kok district said the pair demanded $400 from a family before putting out the fire.

Despite the unresolved allegations, the fire office needs the staff to service the city, the chief said.

“We lack…drivers to drive the fire trucks,” Suon So­pheak said. He said his force has only 80 firefighters and six trucks.

National Assembly lawmaker Keo Remy said he called the mu­nicipality’s emergency hot line earlier this year during normal working hours to report a fire he witnessed. No one picked up the line, he said. He also criticized ex­tortion in the force. “Firefighters have to keep hu­man life more important than money,” he said.

Unchecked urban growth has hampered the fire office, Suon Sopheak said. The time needed to navigate the traffic means that fire trucks need take more time to reach a fire than before, he said.

New construction in the city has proceeded with little regard to fire safety, officials said.

“The buildings presently built lack the standard in which fire safety is ensured, said prominent ar­chitect Vann Molyvann.

To supplement the trucks, the mu­nicipality last month purchased two three-wheeled motor bikes equipped with fire extinguishers and water pumps, Suon Sopheak said.

Outfitted with Korean-made pumps and extinguishers and as­sembled in Vietnam, the bikes cannot carry as much water as the trucks, Suon Sopheak said, but their small size means that the city can now reach narrow streets that the trucks were previously unable to service.

“These small fire extinguishers will help us reach out to the city’s narrow neighborhoods,” Suon Sopheak said.

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