Courage to face the heat

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 12 August, 2006, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 12 August, 2006, 12:00am

WHEN SENIOR FIREMAN Cheung Chi-ming first crawled into the burning China Airlines plane that had skidded off the runway at the Hong Kong International Airport one summer evening in 1999, the harrowing scene he came across was the stuff of movies - and the trappings of nightmares.

Screaming passengers were dangling by their seat belts from the ceiling of the plane that had flipped over. Others were stuck under mountains of debris as jet fuel rained down on the cabin in stifling 50-degree heat. The veteran fireman, who had close to three decades of experience, had never experienced anything like it before.

Heavy rain and gusting winds brought on by Typhoon Sam had knocked the plane sideways on landing, snapping off its wing and rolling it over on to its back before the rear erupted into a fireball.

'We were working against the clock to get everyone out of there as quickly as possible for fear the plane could explode,' said Mr Cheung, who was one of the first firemen to arrive on the scene.

'It eventually took us about half an hour to get everyone out. I had to release people stuck up in the ceiling, rescue women trapped under debris, and escort people out the wreckage.'

In recognition of his role in the rescue operation, then chief executive Tung Chee-hwa awarded Mr Cheung with a medal for his bravery.

Few careers push ordinary people to the limits of human endurance in quite the same way as fire fighting, where bravery and courage are almost mandatory requirements of the job rather than rare personal qualities.

But at times it can be easy to forget that firemen are people, too.

'I would be lying if I said I never felt scared. But it is only after I have left the site and had time to reflect back on what happened that the fear finally hits home,' Mr Cheung said.

'Obviously, after 28 years of experience, I have seen more and had more training, so I am much more confident about my work, calmer and better able to control my emotions than when I first started. But there can still be fear.'

Mr Cheung said the dangers of fire fighting had petrified him on his first day on the job.

His first job was to tackle a fire that had broken out at a cluster of hillside wooden houses in Choi Hung - a common occurrence in Hong Kong during the 1970s and 1980s.

'I just followed my supervisor's instructions, opened the roadside fire extinguisher, aimed the spray hose at the fire and mounted a ladder to try and put the fire out from above, even though I couldn't see very much beyond the smoke.

'It was very nerve-racking,' he said. 'I was afraid there would be an explosion at the site or [I would fall] into the inferno.'

That first day stuck with Mr Cheung, not only because it marked his initiation into the profession but also because of what he had learnt from his colleagues.

'I will never forget the first thing my supervisor taught me. He said no matter how deep you venture into the site, you always need to know the exit route,' Mr Cheung said, adding that this was important so that firemen could find their way out of a site before their air tanks, which only last for 45 minutes, ran out.

'We typically work in groups of two, so my partner and I would be expected to find the way out together. If the supervisors don't see us emerging after 45 minutes, they will send people in to look for us.'

While pressures in life are inevitable, stress for firemen is more acute. They are responsible for rescuing people, looking after each other and are also duty bound to keep themselves safe.

'The most challenging part of the work is to remain cautious, assess the situation and figure out the right approach to take,' Mr Cheung said.

'There is absolutely no room for error in our work because that could mean the difference between life and death.'

Firemen work a 24-hour shift, then get 48 hours off before restarting the cycle. While on stand-by, they must be at the fire station at all times. Meals are provided, and physical and theoretical training take place throughout the day until the alarm bell rings.

'In the city districts, the fire truck has to reach the site of the fire within six minutes from the time the emergency call comes in, so the fire truck waits for no one,' Mr Cheung said.

'Whether we are having dinner or taking a shower, we have to be ready to go whenever the alarm bell rings and the announcement calls for your team.'

Although it was the idea of being a hero that first lured Mr Cheung to apply to become a fireman at the age of 20, he soon realised that fire fighting cannot be done independently, and that teamwork is everything.

'There is no such thing as enemies at fire scenes, even if you happen not to like that person. The attitude we take is that we are in this together and we need to look out for each other,' he said.

'We could come across a gas leak smell but have no idea what it is until we open that door; it could be a salty fish or inflammable products, but we just don't know until we go in. So the spirit is very much one of sticking together.'

Firemen are responsible for a wide scope of work that includes breaking through locked doors, getting into lifts that have broken down, talking suicidal people out of jumping off tall buildings, rescuing animals from trees, investigating fire safety complaints and promoting fire prevention campaigns.

Mr Cheung stays healthy by exercising regularly, eating well and going to bed early.

While he may not be as fit as he was when he was in his 20s, he said the experience he had acquired as a fireman was worth its weight in gold.

With seven years to go until he reaches the fire services' mandatory retirement age of 55, Mr Cheung is content to keep fighting fires and fulfilling his childhood dream of being an ordinary man who does extraordinary things.

What it takes

Equipment Breathing apparatus, cutting set, manual rescue kit, concrete saw, multi-gas detector, toxic/combustible gas detector

Personal traits Good communication skills and excellent physical fitness; being outgoing and brave

At a glance

76 Number of Hong Kong fire stations

37,741 Number of fire calls in 2005

20,813 Number of special service calls (including traffic and industrial accidents, landslides, flooding, house collapses and suicides)