Not Every Afghan Institution Is Efficient; This One Is

Sep 17, 2014
Originally published on September 17, 2014 7:50 pm

There are certain sounds you don't ever want to hear in life — in Afghanistan or elsewhere. One is the sound of sirens and a fire truck pulling up outside your house.

But, when flames are roaring out of your garage and are lapping at the side of the house, the sirens are a welcome sound of hope.

It must have started, we think, when our aging generator caught fire. The flames don't even flinch at the spray of our household fire extinguishers.

But within minutes of calling 119, a platoon of Afghan firefighters arrives in a shiny red fire truck, connects a hose and douses the flames.

I've never had to call the fire department before in my life, so I can't really compare, but these guys are good. They put the fire out quickly, make sure there is no structural damage and head on their way — after asking me to sign a form saying they did a good job.

In a country where few institutions function, it comes as a pleasant surprise that the fire department is professional. So it was only natural that we turn this near-tragedy into a story and pay a visit to the fire department.

Col. Mohammed Kabir is head of the Khair Khana station a few miles from our house. He shows us around their compound. Inside the very fire-department-looking two-story station house are parked five modern trucks, donated by the U.S.

Some of the 30 men assigned to this station demonstrate their technique on the fire poles, and then show us their suits and air tanks. It evokes memories of childhood tours of fire stations in the U.S.

Mohammed Ehsan, head of the firefighting unit, says the NPR fire was pretty typical.

"The first thing is to look for gas or fuel or other possible danger," he says. "In your case, there was easy access for the hoses, it was close to our headquarters, and the streets were wide."

Our fire was a relative breeze for Ehsan and his men. But there are plenty of challenges to fighting fires in Kabul.

Kabir explains that they have to use 8,000-liter tanker trucks because Kabul has no fire hydrants. The trucks carry water for wood fires, and foam for petroleum fires. They have to navigate small, often-unpaved streets choked with careless drivers.

And then there's the city itself. It's bone-dry much of the year, making it a giant tinderbox. Houses are poorly — and often illegally — constructed with questionable materials. Most residents of Kabul heat their homes with crude wood stoves. You don't want to look closely at the electrical wiring in this city. And often, booms are not Taliban attacks, but exploding cooking fuel canisters.

So it's no surprise that Kabir's station gets calls almost every day.

We spend a couple of days shadowing his team. On one afternoon, the crew is called to a house in a residential neighborhood. Women were cooking when the gas canister — basically a propane tank — caught fire and exploded.

The women escaped before the blast. Neighbors came rushing in with dirt and used carpets to smother the flames. The fire was almost completely out by the time the firefighters arrived.

They say it could have been a lot worse. The owner of the house runs a business selling gas. His shop is across town, but he was illegally storing dozens of full tanks in the compound.

On another afternoon, a call comes in from one of Kabul's wedding halls. The firefighters arrive to a scene of smoke pouring out of a modern building.

Because they've arrived quickly, they contain the fire to one room. The team extinguishes the small, smoky blaze that's attributed to an electrical short.

Sharafudin Akbari, head of the Kabul fire department, says the Soviet Union invested in the department back in the 1970s. It provided training and equipment, and laid the foundation of today's professional force.

"The fire department was the only branch of the Ministry of Interior that survived the years of war," says Akbari.

Since the fall of the Taliban, the international community has provided more training and equipment, including 26 trucks spread across Kabul. But some of the donated equipment isn't compatible with existing hardware, Akbari says, and some isn't of good quality.

While firefighting is serious business, Akbari admits that, like in the U.S., the job here has a lighter side.

"Once we received a call asking us to rescue an elephant from the roof of the zoo," he says with a chuckle.

Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

In the news business, sometimes you find stories and sometimes they find you. This story about the fire department in Kabul, Afghanistan found Sean Carberry.

(SOUNDBITE OF SIREN)

SEAN CARBERRY, BYLINE: There are certain sounds you don't ever want to hear in life, in Afghanistan or elsewhere. But when flames are roaring out of your garage and are lapping at the side of the house, this is the sound of hope.

(SOUNDBITE OF FIREFIGHTERS YELLING)

CARBERRY: Within minutes, a platoon of firefighters has a hose connected to a shiny red fire truck and they're dousing the flames. I've never had to call a fire department before in my life so I can't really compare. But these guys are good. They put out the fire quickly, make sure there's no structural damage and head on their way. Well, after asking me to sign a form saying they did a good job. In a country where few institutions function, it comes as a pleasant surprise that the fire department is professional.

(SOUNDBITE OF FIREFIGHTERS YELLING)

CARBERRY: Col. Mohammed Kabir is head of the Khair Khana station a few miles from our house. He shows us around their compound.

COLONEL MOHAMMED KABIR: (Through translator) Five modern trucks donated by the U.S. are parked inside a two-story station garage.

(SOUNDBITE OF FIREFIGHTERS YELLING)

CARBERRY: There are 30 men assigned to the station that's of course equipped with fire poles. Mohammed Ehsan is head of the firefighting unit. He says the NPR fire was pretty typical.

MOHAMMED EHSAN: (Through translator) First thing is to look for gas or fuel or possible danger. In your case, there was easy access for the hoses. It was close to our headquarters. And the streets were wide.

CARBERRY: Which made it a relative breeze for Ehsan and his men - but there are plenty of challenges to fighting fires in Kabul.

KABIR: (Speaking foreign language).

CARBERRY: Col. Kabir says they have to use tanker trucks since there are no fire hydrants. They have to navigate small, often unpaved streets, choked with careless drivers. And then there's the city itself - it's bone-dry much of the year, making it a giant tinderbox. Most of Kabul is heated by crude wood stoves. You don't even want to look closely at the wiring.

Often, booms are not Taliban attacks, but exploding cooking fuel canisters. So it's no surprise Kabir's station gets calls almost every day.

(SOUNDBITE OF SIREN)

CARBERRY: This one comes from a wedding hall in Kabul. The firefighters arrive to a scene of smoke pouring out of the modern building.

(SOUNDBITE OF KNOCKING)

CARBERRY: Because they've arrived quickly, they contained the fire to one room. The team extinguishes the small blaze that's attributed to an electrical short.

SHARAFUDIN AKBARI: (Speaking foreign language).

CARBERRY: Sharafudin Akbari is head of the Kabul fire department. He says the Soviet Union invested in the fire department back in the 1970s. And Akbari says the fire department was one of the only institutions to survive the years of war in the country.

AKBARI: (Speaking foreign language).

CARBERRY: Since the fall of the Taliban, the international community has provided more training and equipment, including 26 trucks spread across Kabul. Akbari says while firefighting is serious business, he admits that like in the U.S., there is a lighter side to the job.

AKBARI: (Through translator) Once we received a call asking us to rescue an elephant from the roof of the zoo.

CARBERRY: They had a good laugh after that crank call. And even in conservative Afghanistan, he says every now and then a woman calls up and flirts with his firemen. He wouldn't say whether they respond to those calls or not. Sean Carberry, NPR News, Kabul. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.