Funding fire safety
The House of Representatives committee on public order and safety must be commended for its approval last Tuesday of a substitute bill that would allocate P10 billion for fire protection modernization. Masbate Rep. Narciso Bravo, committee chair, said this was a “more realistic” allocation—a polite way of saying that the original allocation of P5 billion stipulated in House Bill No. 2546, or the Fire Protection Modernization Act of 2019, was much too little, considering that the Bureau of Fire Protection’s (BFP) original request was P147 billion. The augmented budget of P10 billion may still be measly compared to what the BFP actually needs to do its job properly, but it is still a step in the right direction. However, this new allocation would still have to be approved by the House committee on appropriations and the Department of Budget and Management—something they must do posthaste and without hesitation.
Is there any argument, after all, against the need to boost the country’s fire prevention capacity? Destructive fires are an everyday reality in the Philippines, especially in Metro Manila where much of the urban poor live in improvised structures made of highly flammable material, in communities perennially threatened by a tangle of dangerous, often unauthorized, electrical connections.
The most infamous fire in Metro Manila remains to be the 1996 Ozone Disco fire in Quezon City that killed 162 people. Just a few days ago, a family of three died in Olongapo City when they were trapped in a burning building with grilled windows and no fire exits. There is a reason that terrible Filipino saying endures: “Mas mabuti nang manakawan ng sampung beses kaysa masunugan (It is better to be robbed 10 times than to be a victim of a fire).”
With just over 25,000 personnel nationwide, the Bureau of Fire Protection (BFP) is the agency tasked with putting out fires, saving lives and property, and preventing such disasters. Here’s the rub: When the Commission on Audit did its 2018 performance report on the BFP, the picture was decidedly mixed. While the BFP was found to have exceeded its targets in terms of responding to fire calls and safety inspections, it was also burdened with aging equipment and a lack of facilities.
From 2011 to 2017, the BFP had asked for P60.29 billion to build 945 fire stations and acquire 1,057 fire trucks. Instead, it was given only P13.17 billion—a piddling 22 percent of what was needed. As a result, the COA report noted, the BFP could only build 416 fire stations and acquire 597 trucks. Bureaucratic delays only hampered these efforts. “The mandate of the BFP to establish at least one fire station in every province, city and municipality nationwide, equipped with adequate personnel and facilities, was not attained due to the delayed/uncompleted construction of 133 fire stations, thus depriving the BFP and the public of the benefits that could be obtained from the timely completion of the projects,” said COA.
As many as 308 municipalities did not have their own fire station, from Ilocos up north to Basilan down south. The Bangsamoro Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao alone has 96 such municipalities without fire stations. Also, the “BFP failed to properly monitor the construction of its fire stations and the maintenance of its fire trucks. Upon inspection, 11 out of the 44 ongoing construction were already abandoned by its contractors,” noted COA.
The BFP estimates it will need over 3,500 fire trucks to do its work adequately; at present, it only has just over 2,000 trucks in service, many of them old and in need of major repair.
HB 2546, if passed into law, would reorganize the BFP, upgrade and acquire new equipment, support the further training of personnel and, most importantly, provide every municipality without fire services a dedicated fire service. Now, given that critical and gargantuan mandate, why would the House attempt to pass a law that ostensibly modernizes the country’s fire safety infrastructure—but then allocate only a pittance of P5 billion for the project, as against the BFP’s projected cost of P147 billion? That congressional stinginess is misplaced, and a stark disservice to the public given how legislators could, on the other hand, approve in a jiffy additional billions of pesos for the President’s confidential and intelligence funds, and allocate P100 million each for their districts. The recent P5-billion addition to the original allocation is thus a welcome corrective, but it is not enough, and should be followed by more measures to beef up the BFP and its fire safety programs. Doing so means saving lives.
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