by Eulana Weekes
St. Kitts and Nevis (WINN): When the clock strikes 9:00 a.m., it is the start of a 24 hour shift for firefighters on St Kitts. The shift may be quiet or active depending on human behaviour or activities. For a firefighter working a 24 hour shift, the roles and responsibilities are wide and varied. Firefighters respond to vehicular accidents, household, commercial or environmental fires or explosions, offer training, conduct building inspections, fire hydrant maintenance, station cleaning, service of apparatus (fire truck), provide fire safety sessions to groups or conduct fire drills.
However, the most important role of firefighters each day is checking the fire appliance/apparatus, ensuring the availability and working proficiency of tools and equipment needed to respond to any emergency. These include but are not limited to water, ladder, jaws of life, pickaxe, hose, portable water pump, shovel and generator. Similarly, at 7:25 pm each night, the fire appliance is switched on again and an inspection is done to ensure that all equipment is in place.
WINN FM visited the Basseterre Fire Headquarters on St Kitts in mid-June to get first hand experience of a day in the life of a firefighter. The day began with a brief introduction to officers in the Alert Room. Individuals referred to as the Alert Room Operators are tasked with answering the phone and informing firefighters of any active fire and its location. They also record the information in the Station Diary with the date and time. Firefighters are normally alerted of an emergency by the ringing of a bell. Time is an essential resource for Fire and Rescue services.
Once the bell rings, fire fighters rush to put on their bunker gear. Usually, for a firefighter, the pants remain attached to the boots so that, in the event of an emergency, they’ll only need to put their feet into the pants and straight into the boots. This helps to eliminate wasted time. Thereafter, firefighters put on their jackets and go into the fire truck. This takes less than two minutes. On their way to the scene, officers put on additional gear, such as helmets and gloves. In other cases, depending on the type of fire, they may need gas masks or other personal protective equipment.
Once the fire truck is leaving the station in response to an emergency, the siren is switched on and remains on for the duration of the journey. Once the siren is on, all other road users should stop and give way to the fire truck. When nearing the given location, the officers would scan the area looking for visible signs of smoke, flames or accident in the distance. This will then give an idea of the exact location that needs attention.
A response team may be made up of about 6 or 7 firefighters with an option to call for assistance or “back up.” At the scene, they execute different roles to get the job done. This may include connecting the hose, hauling debris, controlling the water, setting up a nearby fire hydrant and in the event of a traffic accident, cutting the vehicle with the use of the jaws of life.
In the case of fire extinguishing, there are various methods, in which that can be done. There is the “sweeping method”, where water is sprayed across a wide section in a left to right motion consistently, covering the surface area of the fire. For fires that are unreachable by the fire appliance, firefighters may use the “banging method.” This involves the use of tree branches to beat the fire until it is extinguished. In contrast, “mopping up” is the finishing of the job. This is ensuring that all embers are properly extinguished.
However, at a location such as a landfill, where water may not be as effective, firefighters may call on backhoes to clear away the debris, and trucks to pour dirt to assist with extinguishing the fire. Once officers complete their emergency response, the tools are placed back into the truck and the truck is refilled with water, in preparation for another call.
At the base, there is a mechanic shop to service the fire appliance, as well as any other fire and police transport. The mechanic shop, just like every other area at the Fire headquarters, is kept very clean and tidy and as informed by senior mechanic Fire Officer Linell Richardson, all oil spills, etc are cleaned at least immediately or by the end of the day and in most cases, the mechanic shop becomes spotless thereafter. He said, “We believe in the saying that says “Cleanliness is next to Godliness.” Cleaning is one of the main routines of the Fire Services. Every morning, the fire officers engage in clean up, ensuring that all areas are tidy and well maintained.
Also at the base is the office of the Acting Fire Chief, Mr. Garfield Hodge and Fire Sub Station Officers, Timothy Martin and Rommell Williams. The official and internal affairs of the St Kitts-Nevis Fire and Rescue Services are carried out through these offices. Some of the daily activities of the Fire Chief involve processing applications, promotions and suspensions, writing and responding to letters and emails and also ensuring that all matters relating to the St Kitts and Nevis Fire and Rescue Services are communicated to the Ministry of National Security.
Williams and Martin however serve in the capacity of managers of the station or mediators between the Fire Chief and the firefighters, as well as the firefighters and the general public. They ensure that the general public are abreast of fire safety measures, whether on their jobs or in the home and likewise ensure that the firefighters are safe, comfortable and motivated. The St Kitts Nevis Fire and Rescue Services has a weekly radio programme named “Fire Talk” hosted at ZIZ at 9:30 a.m. on Tuesdays. Williams and Martin usually lead the charge with the programme, as they seek to keep the public abreast with the affairs of the fire service.
WINN FM learned that a commonly asked question to firefighters is “Do firefighters sleep at night when they are on duty?”
In response, Fire Officer Timothy Martin said, firefighters, can attempt to get some rest during the night. On a quiet night, it is possible to get good rest; however, on a busy night, they might get little to no rest at all, as firefighters are expected to respond to emergency calls. WINN FM had an opportunity to view the sleeping quarters or barracks at the Basseterre Fire Headquarters. There are separate spaces for males and females. The sleeping quarters are equipped with several beds separated by partitions for privacy purposes.
Having worked a 24 hour shift, that team of firefighters is relieved of duties for 48 hours, whilst another team falls in. Currently, there are three teams of fire officers working at Basseterre Fire Headquarters. These include 26 male fire officers, seven female fire officers, one male STEP Officer and three female STEP Officers. However, in total, the St Kitts and Nevis Fire and Rescue Services comprises 118 staff members; 84 male fire officers, 16 female fire officers, four male STEP officers, 8 female STEP officers, one male and one female auxiliary officer, as well as four civilian workers. Other than Basseterre Fire Headquarters, there are fire bases in Sandy Point and Tabernacle, as well as the Robert Llewellyn Bradshaw International Airport in St Kitts. In Nevis, there are two fire bases, the Charlestown Fire Station that provides service to the entire island and also the Vance W Amory International Airport.
Rudolph Ian Henry, a fire officer for almost 22 years, said “It’s been a long and rough journey, but an enjoyable one. I get my inspiration from God, because his guidance and protection is needed when doing this job. It’s not an easy task. Every time we as fire officers leave home, we are not sure what level of risk we will have to take. So we really need God because we are uncertain whether or not we will make it back home or the condition in which we will make it home.”
Deandra Vanterpool has been serving the Federation for the past five years as a female firefighter. She explained to WINN FM the joys and challenges of serving in such capacity.
“It is a good experience. I have learned a lot and have become more mature in dealing with certain situations. I have learned how to be a team player. Though I am 5′ 3” tall, small in stature, I am still able to carry out my duties as effectively as possible. My weight and height doesn’t matter. I get my inspiration from my seven-year-old daughter. I am working hard trying to be a better woman in providing and caring for her. It is a challenge to sleep without my child during my 24 hour shift. Similarly, it is challenging for my child who still hasn’t adjusted to my work schedule. However, it is my job and I have to do it. I enjoy being a firefighter. It has become a part of me and I do not have any regrets.”
Nine years ago, another female firefighter, Shanice Duporte, joined the St Kitts and Nevis Fire and Rescue Services. She stated, “though it is perceived to be a man’s job, my task as a female firefighter is not different to that of the males. I do everything that the men do. My job is about protecting and serving the people of the country and I chose this job because I love to help people. Spending a 24 hour shift on the job is a great experience. We are like a family. We live as one. We are a team. In the seriousness of having to respond to fire calls and accidents, there is still a lot of excitement such as the Fire Week of Activities, more specifically the fire drills. I love my job. I do not have any regrets. I will always be a firefighter serving the people of St Kitts and Nevis.”
The St Kitts and Nevis Fire and Rescue Services was separated from The Royal St Christopher and Nevis Police Force in January 2000. The mission of the St. Kitts and Nevis Fire and Rescue Services is to protect and safeguard the lives and property of citizens and the general economy, by preventing or reducing the dangers and effect of fires and explosions.