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Fire, Fire Fighters, and Hydrants!

Int’l standards say ‘hydrants spacing’ should be less than 1,000 ft apart

A massive inferno that destroyed a two-story apartment building in Belize City on Monday has once again emphasized the need for fire trucks to have improved access to water to fight fires.

As The Reporter had previously reported, Hon. Orlando Habet, minister with responsibility for the National Fire Service, explained that in most of these neighborhoods fire hydrants once existed but they were eventually eliminated due to urbanization.

Speaking with The Reporter last December, Habet said, “My understanding is that they always arrive with water. However, all our trucks have limited capacity for water, some less than others.”

In fact, Habet had indicated that while equipping the National Fire Service with the necessary equipment to carry out their duties effectively has always been a priority, securing the required funding has been the issue.

At that time, Minister Habet said, “We need to secure funding for water bowsers to follow fire trucks and to work with municipalities for installation of hydrants or installation of water reservoirs.”

According to international standards, hydrant spacing varies based on risk levels, but at maximum—even for low-risk areas—the distance is approximately 300 meters (or just below 1,000 feet) apart. That distance is roughly equivalent to the four-minute walking distance between the People’s United Party (PUP)’s headquarters on Queen Street and Brodies supermarket on Albert Street.

For high-density areas such as commercial districts, cities, and large towns where the risk to life and property on account of fire is likely to be high, international benchmarks have advised hydrant spacing of approximately 90 meters (or 280 feet).

That 90-meter benchmark is notably less than the walking distance between Brodies and the Belize Bank (120 meters) in downtown Belize City, a short distance which those familiar with the area know would keep both buildings in view.

Fire on Simon Lamb Street

However, for Monday’s fire which broke out on Simon Lamb Street just after midday, and left close to a dozen individuals homeless, it is, once again, reported that the truck ran out of water and had to leave the scene to refill, taking a little over 15 minutes to return.

However, upon its return, the flames had already grown and were consuming a third structure along with three vehicles that were parked in one of the yards. During that time, the inferno, coupled with the shifting wind, had also threatened the safety of students and teachers at St. Joseph School, forcing them to evacuate due to the heat and thick smoke.

Station Supervisor Kenneth Mortis, speaking with the media on Monday, lamented, “I'll keep hearing that, ‘you all [are] late and you all come without water.’ That will be a stigma that will stay with the fire department long after I've gone.

“It's unfortunate we have to keep hearing that … regardless of the size of these trucks, these trucks have a water tank in them. Our trucks carry anywhere from 400 gallons to 1,000 gallons of water. Once that water is exhausted from the tank, we need to go and find a supplementary supply. To refill these trucks from a hydrant, it will take 15 minutes on a minimum average to refill and then relocate back to the fire scene. Of course, while all that is happening, there isn't anything the firefighters on the scene can do but wait.”

Mortis also addressed allegations from bystanders that not only did the truck show up with a limited water supply but that firefighters on the scene were focusing on dousing the flames on a building that had already been destroyed instead of focusing their attention on nearby structures.

Mortis defended his team by explaining that it was all a strategic approach due to the magnitude of the inferno as well as the position of the wind. He explained that firefighters had to go into defensive mode and focus their attention on what was being burnt to cool it down so that the flames would allow a second team to put up a defensive attack between the two burning structures and prevent it from spreading any further without getting injured in the process.

The fire, which was unintentionally set by one of the tenants, completely destroyed the two-story wooden apartment and three vehicles and caused damage to two other houses in the vicinity.

The limited water supply available to douse fires has been a recurrent concern for residents, especially when lives are lost. Last December, an elderly woman was burnt alive inside her home on Reggae Street in Belize City, and similar water-supply complaints had emerged.

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