Kathmandu Fire Brigade Protects Half Million in Historic Capital of Remote Nepal
World’s “Most Isolated” Fire Force
THE WORLD’S “MOST ISOLATED” fire department is protecting a halfmillion lives in the historic Valley of Kathmandu, capital of remote Nepal.
There is no such thing as mutual aid in the Himalaya Mountains, and the valley’s 62 professional firemen have only their own skill and equipment to prevent a major disaster.
The fact that this ancient wooden city has not been swept by conflagration is testimony to the training and efficiency of the Kathmandu Fire Brigade.
To appreciate the achievements and problems of the Nepalese firemen, one must first understand something about the rugged mountain country that lies between India and Tibet.
Until the last few years, Nepal had been cut off from the rest of the world by dense jungles, the highest mountains on earth and a tough political regime. Slightly smaller than the State of Illinois, it was known as “The Forbidden Kingdom.”
There were no roads into Kathmandu, and the capital city’s main link with the outside world was a winding mule trail. Freight was carried in by porters or came over an 18-mile ropeway. Even fire apparatus was lashed to a platform and dragged through the mountains by hundreds of coolies.
A revolution overthrew the old rulers in 1951, and the hermit nation has opened its doors. Economic aid from America and India is helping Nepal to catch up widi the 20th Century.
But from the standpoint of fire fighting, the Valley of Kathmandu remains isolated. Despite a new road over the mountains, it would still take at least 24 hours for outside help to arrive. Only six pieces of apparatus and 62 firemen stand between Kathmandu and destruction.
Central Asia’s only professional fire force
Organized in 1944, the Kathmandu Fire Brigade is the only professional fire department in the entire Himalaya Mountain region of Central Asia. Its front-line equipment consists of three 250-gpm pumpers and three 500-gallon tank trucks.
Head of the department is a civilian director, M. R. Bhandari, whose job corresponds to that of an American fire commissioner. The chief fire officer is Superintendent Lai Basadur, who has been a fireman for 18 years and formerly was a member of the Calcutta, India, Fire Brigade.
The fire fighting force is divided into three companies, each equipped with a pumper and a tanker; and 20 men commanded by a “suba” (officer) and a sergeant. One company is located at main headquarters in downtown Kathmandu, while the others are in the adjoining suburb of Patan, and the old town of Bhatgoan, six miles away.
An English-made 1944 Morris-Commercial truck with a 250-gpm Hadfield pump runs out of the Kathmandu station. The other companies have 1949 Dodge trucks with a 250-gpm Harland-Taylor pump. The three 500-gallon booster tanks are mounted on 1935 Chevrolet chassis. In addition, a 250-gpm trailer pump and utility truck are stationed at main headquarters.
Each pumper carries 1,500 feet of hose, a 30-foot ladder, axes, nozzles, chemical extinguishers and the usual hand tools. The valley’s principal source of water is backyard wells, though there are hydrants fed by 2 ⅛-inch mains in Kathmandu city. Hydrant pressure averages about 15 pounds, and insufficient water supply is a serious problem in many areas.
The department is run along military lines, and discipline is very strict. Candidates are young by American standards —16 to 20 years old—and receive six months training before being assigned to companies. A drill tower is located at the rear of main headquarters.
Officers and men work 24-hour shifts in the two-platoon system. Firemen are paid 55 rupees per month (about $9), while sergeants earn 85 rupees and officers receive 200 rupees per month (about $33). Each man is entitled to 30 days vacation a year, and 20 days of annual leave. Pension after 20 years is at onethird of the regular pay.
Alarms are telephoned directly to each station, though many are “company stills’’ brought on the run by a frantic citizen who usually shouts in Nepali (the main language), but may also be screaming in the Tibetan or Newari dialects.
Many hazards but few fires
Construction in the valley is mostly wood and brick, although the emphasis is on wood in the towns. With the exception of historic temples and palaces, few buildings are over two or three stories in height. Many tenement-like buildings are several hundred years old, with ornate wood carvings and narrow stairways.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Hal Bruno is a staff reporter for the Chicago American, now in India on a Fulbright scholarship. On his visits to rural areas and all of the major cities, he has studied local fire forces and their methods. He writes: “You might be interested to know that even firemen in remote places such as Nepal have heard of FIRE ENGINEERING and are anxious to get copies.”
Most of the population cooks inside on wood and cow-dung fires, and the few electrical circuits are heavily overloaded.
Despite these hazards, there are surprisingly few fires—an average of only 150 alarms per year. This is due to a ready-made fire prevention program in the Nepalese way of life. As Director Bhandri explained: “Our people handle fire all their lives and learn to be careful at an early age. It is tradition in a Nepalese home to assign a servant or older child to watch the fire.”
There is little industry in the valley, whose main occupations are agriculture and trade. However, with the entrance of the modern world, Nepal is changing and new problems are being created for the fire service.
As a result, many improvements are scheduled for the fire brigade under the country’s five-year plan. They include more equipment and manpower, and the installation of two-way radios.
The Nepalese fire fighters are anxious to get technical manuals and magazines from the outside world, but are prevented from doing so by strict currency regulations.
American firemen could do a good turn by mailing old copies of FIRE ENGINEERING to the firemen of Kathmandu. CD