Firefighter's death mustn't be in vain

PUBLISHED : Friday, 09 September, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 09 September, 2011, 12:00am


Twice in three years, the deaths of firefighters in the line of duty have resulted in high-profile inquests. In both cases coroner's juries returned findings of accidental deaths, but targeted the Fire Services Department with recommendations on better equipment and systems that might prevent similar tragedies.

In the first instance the department acted promptly. We trust it does so again after the latest hearing. Few jobs are as dangerous as firefighting in our densely packed high-rise city. Every aspect of preventing and fighting fires has to comply with best practice and standards.

In August 2008, two firemen were among four fatalities in a fire that engulfed a commercial-residential building in Mong Kok. Following evidence of the dead firemen's inability to alert superiors to their desperate plight, the jury recommended, and the department bought, a new radio system to enhance communications at a fire scene and prevent jamming by multiple users, with an emergency button as a back-up for calling for help.

Regrettably a communications failure at a critical moment was also involved in the death of a senior fireman in a Cheung Sha Wan factory fire in March last year. The jury said he died when extreme conditions caused him to have a heart attack. But it heard that text messages deleted by a departmental communications officer included one from a frontline commander upgrading the fire, resulting in an 18-minute delay in the arrival of reinforcements. It remains speculation whether a more timely response would have made any difference, but there can be no argument with the jury's recommendation that the firefighting communications centre should not be cluttered with general messages. It also urged enforcement of compliance with activation of firemen's personal alarms that sound when the wearer does not move for a time. Firefighters need courage and fortitude. But these attributes alone will not keep them and the public safe. Failure or shortcomings in systems or equipment can have tragic results.