Wednesday, December 03, 2008

India's Bravest Taken To Task

By: Lou Angeli

Mumbai, India (December 3, 2008) -- Just last week, terrorism reared it ugly ahead again, this time in the Indian city of Mumbai. Once known as Bombay, Mumbai is the 2nd largest city in the World, with a population of 19 million and growing. The city is the economic capital of India and home to the nation's incredibly huge film industry.

But on November 28th, even Bollywood’s best scriptwriters couldn’t have topped the story that was taking place in the streets of south city. Teams of terrorists, believed to have snuck into the city from Pakistan, went on a rampage of murder and destruction that lasted nearly four days.

In addition to automatic weapons and grenades, the terrorists wreaked havoc in public buildings by exploding bombs made of C4, which ignited massive fires in two hotels and the earth’s busiest train station.

As the Mumbai Fire Brigade mobilized to fight these blazes, officers and firefighters alike knew that they’d be facing a tremendous challenge as terrorists attacked multiple, high visibilty targets within the congested city centre.

In a city of nearly 20 million, there are only 30 fire stations and 2,000 uniformed firefighters. What makes matters worse is that the Brigade has long been government’s stepchild, forced to operate as if it were 1950. Apparatus are old (20 years plus), firefighting equipment is worn, most SCBA’s no longer work, and the members themselves have no PPE to speak of.

As station members began to arrive on the fireground turned battleground, their size up was not very promising.The attacks took place in buildings which were frequented by foreign tourists, especially American and British citizens. Among the buildings involved were the Taj Mahal Hotel, Hotel Trident (formerly Oberoi), Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus (formerly Victoria Terminal), The Leopold Cafe and Bade Miyan Gali.

In a well-planned series of simultaneous attacks, the terrorists murdered as many as possible, taking hostages and igniting fires within the centuries old structures. The largest blaze burned at the Taj Mahal Hotel where the flames started on the upper floors and systematically consumed floors below..

With no sprinkler systems or interior standpipes, the fire suppression effort was limited to a master stream attack from aerial devices such as the Bronto Skylift. The firefight was hampered by gunfire aimed at fire-rescue personnel, who bravely remained at their posts both atop the aerial platforms and at the ground level. Additional aerial devices were brought in – some from 50 miles away -- as the onerous task of rescuing and removing hundreds of trapped victims began to take place.

Amercian businessman, C. Richard Diffenderffer, was just one of the scores who were trapped by the lethal combination of gunfire and flames. As the blaze burned downward, the Delaware businessman could hear the flames in the 6th floor room above him. Finally, hours after the ordeal began, fire crews finally reached Diffenderffer.

“These guys are true heroes,” Diffenderffer said about Mumbai's firemen. He added that the rescue team surrounded him in order to protect him from gunfire that was pelting the Skylift’s basket. He refers to Mumbai's Bravest as "angels from Heaven."

By Saturday, the last hostages were freed as the remaining terrorists were wiped out by Indian Special Forces. The attacks killed 174, including 26 foreigners. 240 were injured and damage tolls to hotels and the train station are still being determined.

In the wake of the late November 2008 events, it was revealed that Mumbai's firefighters are poorly equipped and not prepared to effectively battle such large blazes. One fireman best described the brigade's PPE as London circa 1950. Indeed, members currently wear wool tunics and compressed cork helmets, the same gear used by firemen in England during World War II. State-of-the-art firefighting gear has apparently been authorized by the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation, but 13 months after being fitted, frontline firefighting teams have yet to see these lifesaving garments.

As official enquiries begin, and politicians face the press, citizens of Mumbai will demand answers. There will be a tremendous outpouring of support for the city's heroic firefighters, and the brigade will eventually benefit from this tragedy much like their FDNY colleagues did following the events of 9/11/01. The PPE that brigade members have been anxiously awating apparently will soon be shipped. And there have already been discussions of replacing aging apparatus and perhaps training special teams of firefighters to enter burning buildings to conduct an interior firefight.

2,000 firefighters protecting a population of 19 million? In my book, those numbers seem a bit screwy, especially when compared to staffing in US departments. It seems like a recruitment program to hire additional firefighters would serve to bolster the ranks of India’s Bravest, while providing much needed protection to one of the largest municipalities on earth.


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