Plans for National Fire Department Announced

A new department will be created within the Interior Ministry this year to bolster the government’s currently anemic capacity to fight blazes, Interior Minister Sar Kheng announced Wednesday.

Speaking on the sidelines of the International Forum on Fire and Disaster Management in Phnom Penh, Mr. Kheng outlined plans for the new national department later this year and the launch of a fire bureau in each of the country’s nearly 200 districts by next year.

“The plan of the ministry in the past has dealt only with fire bureaus, but this year we will launch the fire department to deal with this issue better,” Mr. Kheng said.

“The fire bureaus right now have too little staff without enough experience to help people when the fire happens and not enough equipment. So we aim to improve this.”

The country’s firefighting force is widely criticized for showing up late to fires, being slow to quell them and sometimes even demanding money from residents before they start trying to put out a blaze.

The most recent example was a fire that ripped through a community in Phnom Penh’s Meanchey district in July, razing 35 houses after firefighters arrived late to the scene. About 50 of the victims are now camped in tents beside the charred remains of their former homes.

Paul Hurford, managing director of FireSafe Cambodia, an organization that offers training in fire response and recovery, said he was skeptical of the impact the Interior Ministry’s new fire department might have.

“I welcome the idea but it all depends on the structure because there’s a need for major changes,” Mr. Hurford said.

“Although the current service works, there are multiple issues,” he said. Among them is the public perception that firefighters are part of the police force, and thus receive the same level of trust, or lack of it. In more developed countries, he said, there is a clear separation of firefighting forces and policing forces.

“Here there isn’t that separation,” he added.

“It’s about developing a fire service that suits the culture and climate,” Mr. Hurford said. “In Phnom Penh, there’s only a couple of hundred fire hydrants and limited public services. It isn’t ideal.”

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