Letter to the Editor: Can cisterns save the day?

Sunday, July 3rd, 2016

Letters-to-the-EditorDear Editor,
On the TV Newscast from Channel 5 Belize, from June 27, on the San Pedro Town fire, with Fire Chief Ted Smith’s comments are reminescent of the famous Donald Rumsfeld explanation of the Iraq War problems: “As you know, you go to war with the army you have, not the army you might want or wish to have at a later time.”
Having a national fire department, like a national police department, can be both good and bad. On the one hand, the entire country is served. On the other, it is sometimes served poorly in certain regions.
Ambergris Caye has certainly outgrown its two battered engines and small cadre of professional firefighters. But as Chief Smith points out, in a country with limited resources — you can expect limited resources. How many more times can citizens be expected to save the day with the heroics of the bucket brigades?
Or even our own dedicated firemen — with such limited resources and manpower — what happens the next time a fire erupts behind the commercial canyon walls in our very dense downtown? What if they can’t get access?
A friend wrote to me asking about firefighting infrastructure — you know, fire hydrants. We may never reach that level of sophistication but how about firefighting cisterns?
When San Francisco rebuilt after the massive earthquake of 1906, the city built cisterns into the roads at key intersections. So much of the city was leveled by fire because there was no water to douse the flames. The cisterns ensured a supply of water for firefighters, should disaster strike again.
Early Monday morning, firefighters were scrambling to find wells to tap into with the bone-dry pumper truck. If there were cisterns at our key intersections, in our most crowded parts of San Pedro Town perhaps the story of the next fire would not be so devastating.
Also, given the limited resources of the national fire department, is it time to establish a volunteer fire department that works in unison with the professionals?
I know that is a touchy subject but San Pedro’s citizens have shown time and again that they have the heart, courage and fortitude to face-down conflagrations with 5-gallon buckets of water. I’m pretty sure there are enough retired firemen on this island to help form the nucleus of a volunteer corps.
Beyond that, once we have cared for all the victims of this fire, I would love to see the island’s fundraising expertise turned to supporting an improved fire department and the volunteer firefighting corps. (Well, and support our PolyClinic with massive infusions of fundraising love — but that is another issue for another day.)
When asked if Ambergris Caye would ever get the firefighting support it needs, Fire Chief Smith gave a flat out and honest no. “This is Belize,” he said. That wasn’t cynical, and it wasn’t dismissive. He was being honest and pragmatic.
This is Belize. Resources from the central government will always be limited — especially when the nation is funding the Ashcroft Alliance to the tune of half-a-billion dollars for BTL (again, a whole other story) — but island spirit and sense of community are boundless.
We don’t have to accept the realities of a government drained as dry as our pumper truck.
Centralized cisterns and a volunteer firefighting corps?
We can do this!
Bob Hawkins

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