The Fire Services Department is recruiting 54 station officers as part of an annual drive. Christopher Yip, principal information officer, said new firemen and station officers were needed to cope with the department's growth and to replace retiring officers. He said the duties of firefighters were becoming more challenging. Last year, the department answered 37,846 fire calls. It also responded to 20,813 special services calls, involving live rescue operations such as freeing people trapped in motor vehicle accidents. Currently, the Fire Services employs 8,197 uniformed members, including fire and ambulance personnel. It operates 68 fire stations, 29 ambulance depots and five fireboat stations. This year, new stations are scheduled to open in Sandy Bay, Tuen Mun Fu Tei and Ma Wan. The department has also increased its activities in raising fire safety awareness. Public concern over fire prevention measures began to grow in 1995 after 12 people died in a blaze in the Hongkong Bank's Shekkipmei branch, and fires in the Garley Building (40 dead), the Top-One Karaoke bar (17 dead) and a Mei Foo Sun Chuen estate (nine dead). To identify potential fire traps, more than 27,000 inspections of private buildings were conducted last year. The findings revealed that nearly 40 per cent were unsatisfactory 'in terms of their fire services installations and fire safety management'. This year, the department plans to check about 7,000 premises built before 1973. Mr Yip said there was a need for greater fire safety awareness and the department had been working closely with the Education Department to get its message across to young people. The department is releasing a CD-ROM which will be used as a teaching tool to heighten fire safety awareness. 'We have set up a new office in the Fire Protection Command and formed a special group of officers to deal with [promoting] fire safety issues. We have to educate the people, especially the youngsters, to be aware of fire safety practices in buildings,' he said. 'We have also been advertising more about the issue, lecturing on the subject and conducting open houses at the fire stations so children can learn about fire safety. It is a concerted effort between the Fire Services and the different arms of the government.' Unlike firemen, successful applicants for posts of station officer enter the service with an officer's rank. Candi dates must have a minimum of five HKCEE qualifications at grade E or above, including passes in English (Syllabus B) and Chinese. The starting monthly salary is $24,605, while degree holders can earn a maximum of $30,585. From February last year to January 21, the department received 1,306 applications with just 39 passing the selection interview. Assistant divisional officer Tam Tai-keung said the entry requirements were stringent, with many candidates failing eyesight and strength tests. Male applicants must be between 168 cm and 191 cm high and weigh between 55 kg and 86.75 kg. Females need to be within the same height range and between 50 kg and 83 kg. Successful applicants have to undertake a 26-week course at the Fire Services Training School in Pat Heung. They undergo physical fitness training and learn about fire-fighting techniques, departmental procedures and first aid. They are then assigned to a fire station to complete the final 2.5 years of their probation. Among their supervisory duties is to assist in managing the station and its emergency equipment, to provide training for firemen, and to take part in fire protection and staff duties. After five years of service, those who have achieved the necessary qualifications are eligible for promotion to senior station officer. Most firefighters work shift duty of 24 hours followed by 48 hours off. 'To be a firefighter takes a certain type of individual as it is not a regular job. We are looking for candidates with qualities such as bravery, determination, commitment and the ability to make sound judgment in stressful situations,' Mr Tam said. Firefighters receive free medical and dental treatment, pension, annual leave and an education allowance. Station officers are also entitled to married quarters, a subsistence allowance, grants and loans from the Fire Services Welfare Fund, local and overseas training for career development, access to a social club and use of holiday flats.