Fire Department Operations During Social Instablity And Civil Unrest

The fire department is often referred to as the citizens? last hope when disaster occurs. However, there are times when the fire department can be viewed as the ?enemy? or an element of interference to those whose aim is to cause mayhem and destruction.

The fire department is often referred to as the citizens' last hope when disaster occurs. However, there are times when the fire department can be viewed as the "enemy" or an element of interference to those whose aim is to cause mayhem and destruction.

The fact that firefighters represent government or the "State" and are a uniformed entity can be reason enough for the perverse and rebellious to want to inflict harm upon them. Firefighters are also an easy objective to attack, as opposed to the Police, in that they are unarmed.

In the days when the Bronx was burning in the 70's it was not uncommon for the fire department to respond to a car fire in the middle of a city block. Upon arrival, a second vehicle would be placed at the other end of the street blocking the firefighters' exodus. The trapped engine would then become the target of incensed people on the roofs of the surrounding buildings who hurled bricks, bottles and garbage at the firefighters.

In Sarajevo in 1993 the fire department was often called to extinguish a "huge blaze" that had been reported by telephone. Given information that there was a large fire, many pieces of equipment would be dispatched to the scene. As the firefighters arrived they became the target for a sniper who had positioned himself to kill as many firemen as possible. The "fire" was in fact a false alarm and had been deliberately reported by the sniper himself.

In times of socio/economic uncertainty, war and civil unrest, acts of violence which result in fire are quite frequent. Fire is often the instrument of choice on the part of the disobedient in creating chaos. It has been utilized to deliberately destroy property, create obstacles for the police or to attack institutions and the forces of order. During these incidents the fire department is called to extinguish the flames which are also essential to the outcome of the destruction desired by the malevolent. In turn, firefighters become a most unwanted figure.

Roughly twenty years ago, in the townships surrounding Johannesburg, most notably in Alexandria, riots were the order of the day. The fires in these shantytowns proved to be outright conflagrations at times. In addition to the destruction of these miserable dwellings, which housed some of the poorest people in the world, there were many fatalities as well. The fire department, which literally fought an uphill battle in Hell on Earth to at least keep the fires from spreading and rescue as many people as possible, was shot at and apparatus were pelted with Molotov cocktails.

Subsequent to the Yugoslav Army's egress from Kosovo and the United Nations and KFOR's entry in June 1999, mayhem was overwhelming. Kosovar Albanians who had been oppressed and forced to become refugees in Albania and Macedonia were now returning by the thousands. To "even the score" with the Serbs who had oppressed them, in addition to murder, the Kosovar Albanians most commonly utilized fire as the means of destroying all things Serbian. The ill-equipped and feeble Kosovo Fire Department always turned out to extinguish the fires independent of whether it was a Serb or Albanian home that was burning. However, there were many times when the infamous UCK terrorists stopped firemen from performing their duty with the threat of death, even when a whole block was burning. In other instances, it was the people of a particular neighborhood who scrutinized the ethnicity of the firefighters before allowing them to fight a fire. Albanian firefighters were not welcome in Serb neighborhoods and vice versa. Even when Albanians tried to extinguish the fire in a Serb home - or the other way around - they became the target of insults at first, then rocks and bottles. Often the feeling was, "this is a Serb fire and can ONLY be extinguished by Serbian firefighters - or Albanian as the case may be. Since the fire department in Kosovo was really the only entity where Serbs and Albanians worked together, they would both come under attack if seen working side by side.

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