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October 21, 2019

KMC fire brigade goes on indefinite strike over ‘neglect by authorities’

Karachi

October 21, 2019

The city’s biggest fire department under the Karachi Metropolitan Corporation (KMC) caused a lot of damage to a house in Nazimabad No. 2 on Sunday by first refusing to send any fire engine to douse a blaze, and then agreeing to help, but after an hour’s delay.

A fire had broken out on the third floor of the house. According to one of the locals, Salman Samad, the KMC’s fire brigade refused to do anything because they aren’t being paid their dues by the municipal body.

“We kept complaining, but the person on the phone refused to dispatch any fire tender for the blaze,” he said, adding that after videos of the fire started circulating on social media, three fire engines arrived on the scene, but they were an hour late.

In the meantime, the locals tried to extinguish the blaze with water pipes. “A few of them brought their foam fire extinguishers with them, but they didn’t work,” he said, adding that by the time the fire tenders arrived, the sitting room of the house was completely burnt.

Fortunately, all the residents managed to escape the fire unhurt. The KMC’s chief fire officer, Tehseen Siddiqui, didn’t respond to any of the phone calls made by The News.

Strike continues

The KMC’s fire brigade will remain on strike for the fifth consecutive day on Monday (today) due to a financial tussle between the Sindh government and the municipal body.

Around 1,400 firefighters of the KMC have been on protest since Thursday. They are demanding that they be paid fire risk allowance for the past 17 months along with a 15 per cent raise in their salaries.

A central leader of the Fire Fighters Welfare Organisation, Shahid Qadri, told The News that they also want restoration of medical allowance, new uniforms and timescale upgrade.

The KMC had released a statement on Saturday saying that negotiations between Karachi Mayor Wasim Akhtar and the firefighters had remained successful and, therefore, the fire brigade staff had called off their strike.

On Friday the municipal body’s fire department had refused to work due to non-payment of their salaries. The fire brigade had been informed of a blaze at the Lucky Cement’s office, but they refused to send any fire engine, prompting the Pakistan Navy to send three fire tenders.

According to Qadri, the fire brigade’s over 1,400 employees posted at 24 fire stations across the city are on strike since Thursday morning due to non-payment of fire risk allowance for the past 18 months.

“By the end of this month, it would be 18 months straight since we were paid any fire risk allowance,” he said, adding that the mayor had only agreed to pay a month’s allowance.

Neglect by the authorities, according to him, has now forced them to go on a strike and halt the firefighting operation for an indefinite period.

“Look how miserable the lives of the firefighters are,” he said, adding that their job is to save lives of others while risking their own, yet they’re one of the least paid segments of society.

“I have nine children: six sons and three daughters. How can I rear them with a basic salary of Rs20,000,” he said, and demanded that the KMC pay their allowances.

The fire risk allowance started around three decades ago through a resolution of the KMC’s elected council. This allowance is meagre, less than the basic salaries of the firefighters.

When asked if any representative of the Sindh government paid them a visit, he said that a nominee of the District South deputy commissioner had come to see them but had assured nothing.

A statement released to the media by the KMC on Saturday had read that the fire department will get a month’s fire risk allowance before October 25, while efforts will be made to disburse the allowance on a regular basis starting next month. All dues will be paid after the approval of the grant by the government.

Akhtar said the fire brigade staff members have the right to protest, but the ongoing strike was not beneficial to anyone. He told The News that the protest has now become political.

He said the KMC is already cash-starved and they are hardly able to pay salaries, so the protest in principle should be against the Sindh government.

The 18 months’ fire allowance amounts to Rs400 million, which the Supreme Court has already asked the provincial chief secretary to pay to the KMC’s fire department, but there’s no timeline, he added.

As for a month’s fire risk allowance, he said, the KMC has assured to pay it from its own meagre resources. When asked about their strategy if there’s a fire in the city, he said that not all 1,400 employees have announced that they won’t work.

He claimed that there are factions of the Pak Sarzameen Party and the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) in the fire department that are trying to politicise the issue.

Meanwhile, PTI MPA Khurrum Sher Zaman said he had visited the firefighters’ camp and conveyed their issues with the mayor to the KMC’s finance director. Their issues are really serious and if they aren’t addressed, the government must realise that the city can face untoward incidents, he added.

As for the KMC, he said, he was told how they don’t even have funds to pay the firefighters’ salaries. He assured them that he will raise this issue in the Sindh Assembly.

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