The Sunday TimesPlus

4th August 1996




A burning need of the hour

By Tharuka Dissanaike

The Fire Department, now under the control of the Air Force, gears itself to meet new threats in a city bedeviled by the threat of terrorism.

The importance of a well equipped fire department has never been this strongly felt. In the wake of disastrous bomb explosions and terrorist attacks in the city that claimed many innocent lives, the need to have a fast, properly geared fire fighting system has become a priority.

It became obvious in the struggle to douse the fires at Kolonnawa and Orugodawatte last November, that the Colombo fire brigade needed to be better equipped for terrorist attacks. The attack on the oil storage facilities resulted in raging oil fires which could not be handled with the existing fire equipment, and foam and trained personnel had to be brought down from India to bring the fires under control. The civilian fire fighting force which was maintained by the Colombo Municipality since the time of it's inception was not updated for a long period for the lack of funds. The fact that it was only a part of the municipal operations and therefore had only the right to a percentage of the municipal budget meant that the department with a staff strength of 190 could not be modernised according to the times.

Then came the Central Bank bomb blast in Fort on the last day of January this year. The biggest explosion so far in Colombo wreaked havoc in the commercial heart of the city and for the first time the fire brigade had to fight a fire in a high-rise building . The fire brigade's efforts to save the Ceylinco building which is the first high-rise in the country, were supplemented by the armed forces. The brigade was congratulated for it's performance that day, but it was clear that the department had to be geared to meet the situations that would inevitably crop up in Colombo- terrorist attacks.

Soon after the Central Bank bomb blast , the Fire Services Department was taken over by the Air Force, on the instructions of the Ministry of Defense. The idea of the take over was to improve and update fire services so that it comes on par with an armed service, with regard to performance in emergency situations. Now, the Air Force inculcates the fire department with a combat-like attitude of preparedness.

The Air Force has trained fire fighters anyway" said Squadron Leader K. Nissanka, Officer -In- Charge of the Fire Brigade. "So it was only practical that we manage the department until the bomb threats to Colombo persists."

He said that the Air Force control over the department was only temporary . "A normal unarmed civilian brigade cannot be expected to respond to terrorist attacks as quickly and successfully as an armed force." With the taking over of the Fire Department, the Air Force allocated some Rs. 800 million to upgrade the facility. Colombo Municipality immediately stopped all funding to the department. All it's former staff are as yet employed at the service. Even the Fire Chief position remains intact. But the Defence Ministry appointed Group Captain G.Y. de Silva as the Chief Fire Coordinator, overall in charge of the Fire Department.

Measures are now underway to improve the fire services. These include procurement of additional equipment and vehicles, training of staff and training of civilians in threatened buildings and areas on escaping fire and dealing with such realities as bomb explosions.

Fire rescue operations are also being stepped up, with the fire fighters receiving special training for rescue and evacuation , especially in high-rise buildings.

The Central Bank fiasco, where the fire fighters didn't either have the equipment or the "attitude" will not be repeated. The department plans to obtain additional rescue vehicles that could be operational at times of emergencies even if the situation does not result in fire. "When the Dehiwala train bomb exploded, a Fire Department rescue team came to the scene even though there was no fire there." Squadron Leader Nissanka said.

There are some 40 high-rise buildings in Colombo city- the Fire brigade's classification of a high-rise building is one that has over 12 stories. Among these high-rises are ones that are suspected to be targets of terrorist attacks like the 36-floor World Trade Centre, the 21 floor Bank of Ceylon building and the 15 floor Sri Lanka Insurance Corporation building. The Fire Department is now conducting special fire drills for the benefit of those employed within the buildings. Drills are conducted at suspected bomb targets and public facilities. The fire drills not only train the occupants how to deal with fire or other emergency but it is also a familiarization exercise for the fire fighters.

"During these drills they explore the building and work out safety exits and rescue methods. Any deficiency in the inbuilt fire control systems are noted and the company is asked to correct these." Squadron Leader Nissanka said .

The brigade also looks out for alternative water sources around the area during the drill.

He said that in some buildings the fire escapes are blocked for various purposes and fire extinguishers empty. The brigade has one 50 metre ladder and a hydraulic platform to combat high-rise fires. When the 14 story Ceylinco building caught fire after the bomb explosion at Central Bank, the Air Force used Helicopters with water buckets to douse the fires in the upper stories.

Squadron Leader Nissanka said that if any particular building is interested in conducting a fire drill, the Department would be willing to comply on request. For the private sector this service comes at a nominal price.

The department proposes to obtain special fire fighting equipment like heat resistant and protective clothing which earlier had not been available to the fighters. "We also hope to get equipment to control chemical fires that could result in factories and industries around the country. A great deal of inflammable and hazardous material is being transported to and from the industrial zones and the city. There is no preparedness to combat a fire that could occur in such situations."

In the next several years the department hopes to expand their horizons by setting up new sub stations in seven urban and suburban areas. At present the department has only three centres at Darley road, Grandpass and Hettiyawatte.

Interestingly civilians too have come forward to lend a hand to upgrade the department. M.C Perera of Makumbura recently made a donation of 50 stretchers to be used for rescue operations.

Since the Air Force is in control at the Department, any emergency situation could be immediately notified and the fire brigade kept on red alert.

"Even when there is news of a bomb scare, the brigade is alerted and on standby, only when there is notice of fire breaking out do we move ." Nissanka said. He said that they are coordinating with the Water Board, to control water valves and pressure at times of emergency, by which the board can block water supply to other areas and feed the fire brigade until the fire is under control.

Undoubtedly the move to upgrade the fire services would be well received by the public, at a time when people fear their safety in every part of the city. But what the masses must remember is that no institution can totally guarantee their safety. Each person must take on the responsibility of being vigilant and security conscious. Public support is essential for the Fire Department to implement it's safety plans.

Truly a man of letters - to the Editor

By Malcolm Abayekoon

Older readers of Colombo newspapers may wonder as to what has happened to Marcus Foenander, the man who held the record for having letters to editors published. Be assured that he is alive and reasonably well at a home for elders in Kegalle. He was born in 1909, a descendant of Samuel Pieter Foenander, a Swede who arrived in Ceylon on April 1st 1780. He was a Captain in the Artillery of the army of the Dutch East India Company. He was also a surveyor and cartographer and is credited with having made the first accurate map of Colombo Fort and surrounding areas.

MTF as he is known, started his working life at the office of the Attorney General and in 1935 he and Donovan Andree were among the first Hansard reporters to be recruited by the State Council. He used to tell me about the great pre-independence debates when Sir Baron Jayatilake, Sir Ponnambalam Ramanathan, D.S. Senanayake and S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike to name but a few, held the Chamber spellbound. Apparently Mr. Bandaranaike and G.G. Ponnambalam used to exchange notes in the language of the Hellenese. One of these landed on Foenander's desk and not knowing what to make of it he took it to SWRD and said, "Sir, this is all Greek to me."

He talked of the early days of Parliament when fiery orators like Dr. Colvin R. De Silva clashed with those on the other side. He held Dr. N. M. Perera in high esteem, said he was a thorough gentleman. He described the Speaker Sir Francis Molamure as a immaculately dressed man who tolerated no nonsense from the floor.

When I met Sir John Kotalawala in England and mentioned who my uncle was, he immediately remembered him and said, "He was a combination of the Oxford Dictionary and Roget's Thesaurus and I don't mind telling you that when I used to dictate letters to him I was occasionally lost for a word and asked him to find an appropriate one." I wish I had taken down on tape what my uncle told me about some of the exchanges in the House, one which I think I correctly remember was when SWRD said to R. Singleton Salmon who represented European interests, "You are like a single salmon swimming against the tide."

MTF had his first Ietter published in the Ceylon Daily News in 1935. The shortest Ietter ever published in The Times (London) had three words, "Let's govern Cyprus." Foenander did not cut it that fine but nevertheless got his point across without taking up too much valuable space. He wrote about water shortages, reckless drivers, garbage left uncollected, conditions at hospitals, corruption and various other matters that were of public concern. Of course some regarded him as being a self opinionated smart aleck and he was once labelled a communist but is in fact a devout Catholic.

Perhaps the greatest tribute paid to Marcus Foenander was when journalist Fred Moir Brown in an editorial said he was the unsleeping sentinel upon our national behaviour. Apparently Mr. D. R. Wijewardene had said to one of his staff at Lake House, "Is everything running smoothly in this country? Foenander has not penned a letter to us for some time.

When I was a boy I lived very near to where his house was, I often used to go to visit him and if it was in the evening I found him stretched out on his rattaned recliner, black Jaffna cigar clamped between his teeth. His usual greeting was, "So how, what's new." Parked nearby was a stout walking stick that he had inherited from grandfather. He kept that within arms reach in case any stray kitten pointers ventured in to his garden and there were plenty of them in Colombo Six. That stick has now been handed down to his son Bryan who lives in Melbourne.

A man of few possessions, I don't think my uncle even owned a wristwatch and for one who did so much writing he had few books. Someone once said you learn something new from every book you read. There is much truth in that but I also know that you gain much knowledge by observing what is going on around you and that I feel is how the man who was also described as the "Wizard of Wellawatte" gathered material for his letters to the press.

With the mass exodus of Burghers all his children left for Australia and after retirement he too went to live Down Under but was back within months. Years later I asked him why he had come back and he said, "My family has lived here for generations, my community was favoured during the period of colonial rule, we have to adjust or go elsewhere. I did, it was not for me."

There could not have been many people in Wellawatte who did not know Uncle Marcus by sight at least. He held court outside the Municipal Market, peppering his conversation with witticisms. In his hand was a shopping bag that had seen better days, it was stuffed with his favourite murunga.

Occasionally this prolific writer of letters was confronted by someone who disagreed with something that he had written to them and he would say, "Write to the papers, put your views but for goodness sake don't make it anonymous, anyone who hasn't the guts to put his or her name to a letter isn't worth taking notice of."

I no longer hear from him, failing eye sight prevents Marcus Theobald Foenander JP from putting pen to paper, otherwise I am told he is quite fit for his age and keeps the staff and residents of his present abode entertained with his never ending raillery. Generations to come may perhaps at newspaper archives read the letters that Uncle Marco wrote and I think they may learn something.

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