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In the boots of a fireman

A tough and thankless job with hardly any pay. A fireman in West Bengal is paid an overtime of Rs 7 to Rs 13 per hour depending on rank

Moumita Chaudhuri | Published 22.09.18, 06:53 PM
A firefighter walks under a spray of water during the fight against the fire at Bagree Market

A firefighter walks under a spray of water during the fight against the fire at Bagree Market

Dibyangshu Sarkar / AFP

The market area in central Calcutta’s Chitpur is bustling. It is Tuesday afternoon. The sweet smell of attar clings to the humid air. We forge on past Nakhoda Masjid and get on to Canning Street. The fragrance of attar fades out and an oppressive pungent smell assaults the senses. The sky too is no longer the brassy gold from the previous stretch; it is filthy. Someone seems to be recklessly dumping sacks of soot on the vivid blue.

As we turn into the Bagree Market area we see fire engines — small and big — in a queue. Two at the mouth of the street and four at the other end that turns into Amartalla Lane. A fire had broken out in the market in the wee hours of Sunday. It took a while before it could be contained, on account of accessibility issues, reportedly. This day the street is criss-crossed with scarlet hoses, some plump with water, some flat, like sleeping tapeworms — they are being dragged up ladders, tossed from one floor to another. There are about 20 firemen out on the street, their khaki uniforms dripping water. We can see more of them peeping out of the left wing of the market building — it is a six-storey structure.


The ground floor shops of Bagree form a charred continuum — there is no telling which sold what; most have been broken into, shutters have been sliced open with iron cutters. (Gas cutters would have been quicker no doubt, but since there were a lot of inflammable articles around, their use was avoided.) The neighbourhood has had no electricity since the night of the fire. Other shops in the area are also shut.

The road is milling with shopkeepers. They are watching the firemen at work with anxious eyes. It has been close to 72 hours. Some of these shopkeepers are squatting on the pavement, some are supervising labourers who are carrying away sacks full of something. We ask shopkeeper Imran Ilahi what those might be. “Whatever the fire did not consume, whatever little,” he replies.

There is a huddle of firemen discussing how to enter the right wing from which smoke is still billowing out. Two or three uniformed supervisors are orchestrating the whole thing. “Place the ladder here. Take the cutter. More water there. Do this. Do that.” Instructions float in the air. A tall folding ladder is going up, up, up. Two of the firemen start to climb it. We are standing a little away but we can still feel the heat emanating from the building. The spray of water from the top floor of a facing building splatters on us — it is warm from the contact with the burning structure. Our eyes burn from the smoke as we watch the firemen climb higher and higher. All of them have yellow helmets on their heads and black gumboots on their feet.

Rajeeb Modak has been at the site for 12 hours at a stretch when we arrive. Twelve hours later when he returns to the fire station he can barely speak. We learn that he had been at work in Bagree from dawn on Sunday to Monday night. (He went back on Tuesday morning.) But the first batch of fire personnel had reached the spot from the nearby Lalbazar fire station within 15 minutes of being alerted. Modak talks about the initial ire of the locals, their chagrin that help came too late. He says, “It happens. A fire is an unnatural situation. We are prepared to tackle it and the human reactions.” We ask him about the annoyance locals expressed at the sight of a small fire engine and he says, “But the bigger vehicles followed one after another, thereafter.”

The West Bengal Fire and Emergency Services is a state-wide organisation with a total of 140 fire stations. In all of Bengal, with its population of 9.03 crore, there are 5,476 sanctioned posts for fire operators.

According to norms, at a given time every station should have a minimum of seven fire personnel — one driver-cum-pump operator, one officer, one leader, four fire operators — on vigil. There are three shifts in all — five-hour, seven-hour and twelve-hour or the night shift. Their salaries are as stipulated by the state government — in India, fire and fire services are state subjects. We learn that the department is crippled by a shortage of staff, leading it to hire contractual workers. Regulars are paid an overtime — Rs 7 to Rs 13 per hour depending on rank.

Probal Mullick has been in service for the last three decades. He too has been at work in Bagree the previous night. He is from another fire station. We ask him what made him sign up for this job. He says, “I joined at a time when firemen were recruited through the Employment Exchange. I had no idea what I was getting into.”

Today, to qualify as a fire operator one has to meet certain minimum qualifications laid down by the state Public Service Commission — usually a Class X certificate from a recognised board and certain physical parameters. Selection happens after a written exam, a viva, an endurance test and a personality test.

Says Mullick, “We had to go through rigorous training. During those times, the fires used to be even more dangerous — industrial fires and fires in rail godowns.” He talks about the jute mill fires. “All the major fires used to happen on weekends,” he chuckles.

Anindo Naskar’s uncle died in a fire at Howrah’s Dasnagar in 1998. Naskar joined service a few years later. Was he not deterred by the loss of kin? “You could step out of the house and get run over,” he says. There is an angry scar covering his right hand. “Happened on duty,” he says following our gaze.

If a fireman dies on duty, the next of kin is entitled to a compensation of Rs 2 lakh. In case of any injury incurred while on duty, they can avail medical treatment at any government or private hospital free of cost.

What about medical insurance? Modak says, “Earlier there was only a medical allowance. Now, we get an insurance cover. There is a cover for auxiliary staff too [Swasthya Sathi].”

Mullick says, “What there is no cover for is public reaction.” Make no mistake, his tone is benign. He continues, “We understand that the people whose homes and belongings and life’s savings have been lost to a fire are on fire within as well. I remember my experience during the Rajabazar fire of 2013. The locals kept on asking us to change the direction of the hose. But the hoses are heavy when they have water pumping through them at high speed. It is difficult to steer the pipe from left to right just like that.”

He talks about other experiences. “One time we ran out of water. As I waited for a refill, I could feel two bricks land on me — one on my helmet and another on my shoulder.”

There are other dangers as well. “Fires at godowns force all kinds of insects and reptiles to crawl out of their holes. At night you can’t spot them, you end up being stung or bitten.”

The Telegraph tried to get in touch with fire minister Sovan Chatterjee but he was unavailable. There is a fire department website but it does not have a section on news and updates. It also stopped functioning temporarily on Thursday. Once it was up again, we made calls to the helpline numbers on the site — the mobiles were unreachable and those manning the landlines did not have any information about the site malfunction.

We speak to the director-general of West Bengal Fire Services, Jag Mohan, about the Bagree Market fire. He says, “We have been able to save at least 800 shops out of 1,000 in such a congested area. It was a long operation too.” He talks about how the locals supported the firefighters through the operation.

We ask him about the allegations that water was perhaps not the best medium to douse the Bagree blaze. He says, “The rule of thumb is that when there is a big fire, water is the best medium. Except in the case of a petroleum fire, where you have to use foam and other materials. When there are mixed materials and the fire is big and accessibility is restrained, water is the best medium.”

Deeksha Nandeshwar is faculty and trainer at the National Institute of Fire Safety Engineering in Nagpur. According to her, a definitive parameter of firefighting preparedness is continuous training. On being asked about frequency of training, Jag Mohan says, “Regular training is difficult as we are facing a little shortage of manpower. But we are imparting training in between.” He admits that the department is facing a staff crunch. He says, “I admit it. But we are also in the process of recruiting 1,500 fire operators via PSC.”

It is late evening of Tuesday when we return to Bagree Market. The shopkeepers are gone now, except for the firemen there’s no one inside the cordoned-off area. Beyond the cordon there is a crowd — people on their way back from office, college students. They are indulging in fire tourism.

We find three firemen sitting on a row of wooden crates. One of them has his helmet off; we can see his grey hair. He is talking about how the hot water sprays seem to have eased his back pain. We chat a bit about the last few days’ work. One fireman fell on an iron rod and injured himself. Some of the firefighters have taken ill. Why don’t they use masks? “It is not just the mask, one has to lug the oxygen cylinder as well. It is easier to spray water and move on,” replies the greyhead.

One of the younger men starts to say, “Basically, no supp…,” and then goes mum. When we make eye contact he sputters, “No. That would be in bad taste. It is our department, after all.”


  • The fire burned from Sunday (September 16) 2.30am to Wednesday 5pm — 86 hours and 30 minutes
  • 20 fire stations from Calcutta and nearabouts were activated. Calcutta has 16 fire stations in all
  • In four days, 31 tankers, of which 20 were small ones, were pressed into service. Each tanker has one mounted pump, depending on tanker size the number of branches goes up. Small ones have 2, big ones 4 to 6
  • A small tanker is manned by 6 firemen and 1 driver-cum-pump operator
  • The smallest tanker has a capacity of 1,000 litres, the biggest 16,000 litres. But there’s no consolidated measure of volumes required as there’s no record of refills
  • 147 firemen worked in three shifts for four days. This involved a lot of overtime work
  • In this entire operation 2 firemen were injured

Source: West Bengal Fire and Emergency Services

Fire, Ire

Basic gear of a fireman: Helmet, gumboots, rubber gloves, breathing apparatus-set, face mask, fire suit or fire jacket

Basic equipment: Lock-cutter, iron-cutter, variety of branches, suction pipes, suction keys, foam-making branches, ladder, crowbar, 14-pound hammer, search lights

Basic pay: According to the 2018 recruitment notification by the WBPSC, pay scale of a fire operator is Rs 5,400 to Rs 25,200 + grade pay Rs 2,600

Basic deficiencies

  • Short-staffed. Currently, the following number of posts are lying vacant — 3,781/5,476 fire operators, 12/1,338 leaders, 567/1,360 fire engine operator-cum-drivers, 373/519 sub officers, 64/66 assistant mobilising officers, 9/45 mobilising officers, 58/250 station officers
  • Not enough fire jackets, suits, masks, no torch for fire operators — torches are made available only to leaders and officers

Basic grouse

  • Not enough leave as a consequence of the staff crunch
  • Paid an overtime of Rs 7 per hour at the junior level, and up to Rs 13 at the senior level. Overtime also comes with a cap — a maximum of 40 hours. Anything above that doesn’t elicit payment
  • Not enough appreciation of the tough and thankless job they do.
Last updated on 24.09.18, 11:08 AM

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