When John Tsang Kwong-yu first clumsily donned breathing apparatus at the Fire Services training school in 1963, firefighting in Hong Kong was a hazardous profession. Despite enormous progress in modern firefighting equipment, huge improvements in building design, vast leaps in fire prevention installations and ceaseless education of the public, daily working life remains potentially dangerous for our 6,071 firefighters. The newly appointed director of fire services sees no way of ending this; firefighting will always be an inherently risky way to make a living. But there is no shortage of young people eager to join the service. Recruitment is up and pay scales are generally regarded as satisfactory. With 2,205 specialist ambulancemen in addition to firefighters, the department is the second largest disciplined force in Hong Kong, after the police. Its history goes back to the birth of Hong Kong, when army, police and volunteers rushed through crowded streets with hand-propelled carts equipped with hand pumps. That's a lot different to today's fleet of 699 fire engines and 196 ambulances. Some of those specialised firefighting vehicles cost $7 million. With 69 fire stations and 29 ambulance depots and annual running costs of $2.6 billion, the fire services is big business. Mr Tsang and his senior officers now plan the purchase of a new fire engine with a rescue tower that will soar 50 metres from street level to the 15th floor of a blazing building. The firefighters who have to fight those high-rise blazes go into battle against the flames armed with the most modern equipment science can devise. The vital body armour and gear, the rubber boots, heavy flame-resistant tunics, the helmet and breathing apparatus have been cut in weight, but still represent an enormous, if essential, burden. In their hands, the firefighter is likely to carry special visual aids that allow him to 'see' through dense smoke and locate a slumped human figure; the first aim of firemen is to save lives. There are similar advances in ambulance equipment, where staff do not merely pick up the ill and injured and drive them to hospital, but also give skilled emergency treatment. On the flooded fields and towns in the New Territories, rescue teams will this rainy season be whipping at 60 knots, propelled over shallow waters and dry land in a hovercraft designed to get into spots where regular boats and vehicles cannot penetrate. Mobile command posts equipped with a futuristic range of computer and communications equipment can now swiftly set up anywhere in Hong Kong to be the instant nucleus of action in case of an emergency. Yes, Mr Tsang sighs, it's all a lot different from the early 60s, when, as a sports-crazed young man, he sought an active outdoor job. These days, it's brains, planning, education and science that are just as important in the fire services as the physical skills needed to tackle a burning building. Educating the public is as vital as training fire officers of the future, and a network of 4,500 fire safety ambassadors, endless briefings with district boards, countless poster campaigns and relentless television advertisements are all part of the drive to get people to protect themselves. But despite this endless persuasion, it was still necessary for inspectors to issue 15,153 fire abatement notices last year, officially warning people to clean-up their dangerous premises. When these are ignored, summonses force people to court. Last year, there were 476 cases and fines totalling $1.93 million. Mr Tsang shakes his head. 'When we get a big fire in a large building, people are astonished,' he says. 'It's a shocking event. But it doesn't take them long to slip back into bad habits.' Hong Kong's firefighters for the past year have been carrying out rigorous safety inspections of thousands of buildings. The condition some of these were in, they discovered, was appalling, with buildings that are homes to thousands turned into firetraps. More than half the 10,000 buildings have been inspected, many slapped with enforcement notices requiring owners to bring them up to safety standards. Modern buildings, Mr Tsang stresses, residential and commercial, are safe - if they are properly managed and maintained. But people stack goods in corridors, prop open fire safety doors and commit all sorts of grievous actions that create fire dangers in what should be safe structures. The modern firefighter has to consider social issues as well as building codes. An inspector confronted with a dangerous building that has been converted into a rabbit warren of cubicles containing caged men cannot just close it and turn people on to the streets. And senior planners are engaged in basic building planning. Firefighters for years have been urging government building officials to insist on a refuge layer in high-rise structures. This would be a barren floor without windows every 15 stories. In a soaring tower, this would provide a sanctuary in case of fire. If a blaze took hold - most unlikely in a modern block with sprinkler systems, smoke detectors and other equipment - then occupants could make their way either up or down to the windowless refuge floors, where they would await rescue. With plenty of ventilation into the empty space and nothing there to burn, they could wait in safety. The mainland has introduced such building codes, with refuge floors every 12 levels. firefighters hope Hong Kong will follow suit. Senior firefighters spend much of their time thinking of the unthinkable; their worry is the major disaster that can hit without warning. For decades, that meant endless exercises for firefighters and other emergency workers practising to deal with a fully laden jumbo jet crashing into Kowloon City. The move of the airport has changed emphasis, but disaster scenarios are still a large part of ceaseless training. 'We're never at ease,' Mr Tsang admits. Landslides, floods, road collapses, outbreaks of bad health, people trapped in the hills . . . there is a collection of disasters for which staff constantly prepare and hope will never happen. Then there is research and prevention. One big question is how to upgrade old buildings and make them safer. Is it more effective to spend money installing modern equipment, or does it make more sense to pull the buildings down and start anew? What new laws are needed and how can people be forced to pay heed to legislation that is designed to save their lives? It's a matter of constant planning and staff training, which is why senior officers go through specialist courses in human resources and management. But at the end of the day, the basic role of a firefighter remains the same as it was 35 years ago, when Mr Tsang went on his first call. It means a firefighter in a smoke-clogged building, battling their way to the seat of a fire and aiming a jet of water. Mr Tsang has been there, done that. He looks back to his early career and a serious fire in Kwai Chung. The flatted factory was well ablaze and goods were stacked to the ceiling. The only way to get in was to climb above the fire, cut a hole through the floor and aim hoses down at the smouldering mass, ready to burst into flames. 'There are still heart attack incidents,' he says. 'You get into a building and burning material is falling on you and you have to wade thigh-deep through burning rubbish that has been stacked illegally in a corridor or staircase. It's like working in a rubbish dump.' Despite all those technical and scientific improvements, life for firemen basically doesn't change.