City’s growth has brought new fire challenges

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Firefighters put out a blaze in Phnom Penh’s Por Sen Chey district. Heng Chivoan

Fire is a primal fear and remains a modern concern, with saving lives and preventing people from losing their homes and possessions the mission of the Ministry of Interior’s Fire Prevention, Extinguishing and Rescue Department.

Firefighters are recruited by the ministry for all fire departments and expert branches across the country. They undergo five-year training in Vietnam to receive a bachelor’s degree in firefighting.

Firefighters must frequently deal with difficult situations, such as the incident on the night of July 16, when fire engines could not directly tackle a fire in an apartment on the 34th floor of a high-rise development in the capital in which two Chinese nationals were trapped.

The firefighters at the scene didn’t hesitate and bravely rushed into the building, climbing the 34 flights of stairs to extract them from the inferno.

The ministry’s fire department chief Neth Vantha told The Post that the blaze had broken out on the 34th floor of the Prince Plaza Condo.

“On July 16 at around 9pm, in Chamkarmon district’s Tonle Bassac commune, a fire broke out in a unit in the building but did not spread to other units, with firefighters using the building’s emergency water system to extinguish the blaze,” Vantha said.

The municipal police’s fire department has 58 fire trucks and the capital’s National Police eight, he said, noting that the fire engines are able to directly tackle fires in high-rises up to the 15th floor.

With the blaze at the Prince Plaza Condo too high to be tackled directly by the fire engines, firefighters took the stairs, using the building’s water supply to sufficiently extinguish the blaze to allow colleagues to enter the burning unit and rescue those trapped inside.

Vantha said the Kingdom’s firefighters regularly underwent training to stay abreast of the latest techniques, with the National Police’s fire departments in the capital and provinces having worked with a Chinese company to undergo one-year training courses.

The training included preventing fires, how best to put them out, rescuing people who are trapped and studying a building’s layout to formulate rescue plans.

The horror of fire is reflected in the story of 38-year-old Huot Mony Pisak, a Siem Reap provincial police officer who remains heavily scarred from a petrol station explosion in 2019.

Pisak had three fingers on his right hand fused together from the burns he suffered, as well as suffering serious nerve damage.

He said that on August 14, 2019 at 1:20pm, he heard an explosion at a petrol station situated around 30m from his home.

Pisak ran to the scene to set up a roadblock to prevent the public from getting close to the flames, and saw a 40-year-old man on fire. Going to the man’s assistance, he suffered serious injuries and was immediately sent to the Siem Reap Provincial Referral Hospital.

Citing witnesses, he told The Post that a petrol tanker had been refilling the station before the explosion. The tanks were full, he said, but those carrying out the refilling had failed to properly check the metre, with the excess petrol igniting in a fireball.

Pisak’s family sent him to Thailand for treatment for five months before returning to Siem Reap for another two.

Doctors needed to transplant muscle from his hip to replace the damaged flesh in his right hand. Three fingers on his right hand had been fused together by the burns, with three operations needed to separate them.

“The scars from the burns have not yet healed. I can’t feel anything when I touch the wound. I do not know how much nerve damage I have suffered,” Pisak said.

He said he didn’t want anybody to suffer as he had, and called on people to be careful and maintain the strictest precautions to avoid fires breaking out.