Will fire-fighting services stay under police control?

Discussions are underway to improve Vanuatu’s fire-fighting capacity by separating the Vanuatu Fire Service from the police’s Vanuatu Mobile Force.

Vanuatu Mobile Force Acting Commander, Robson Iavro, confirmed that the change is under consideration during a graduation ceremony for police officers this week in Port Vila.

Mr Iavro says the separation of police and fire services will take time but he sees it as the best way to improve the nation’s ability to fight fires.

“To improve fire services in both Luganville and Port Vila, we should separate the Vanuatu Fire Service from the existing structure of the Vanuatu Mobile Force and the Vanuatu Police Force,” Mr Iavro said.

“To achieve this we will need to amend legislation to provide a new legal framework for firemen to carry out their duties separate from the police.

“This way the fire service will have the authority and power to [operate] and raise funds in its own capacity.

“The fire service will be able to attract financial support from business houses in Port Vila and Luganville [and development partners].”

Private Nigel Tavuti of the Vanuatu Fire Service, says the performance of the service is hampered because it operates under the Vanuatu Mobile Force.

He believes the Government focuses more on the police and the mobile force and ignores the Vanuatu Fire Service.

“We have been independent for 40 years but the Government has not yet recognised that the fire service is an essential service – even though it deals with people’s lives,” Mr Tavuti says.

He says many people are not aware that the fire services are only set up to provide services in municipal areas.

“If a fire occurs outside of Port Vila, it takes longer for us to respond because we have to get the permission of the Vanuatu Mobile Force Commander before we can respond,” he told VBTC.

Mr Tavuti says the Vanuatu Fire Service is not sufficiently resourced and has only two fire trucks, one that carries 1500 litres of water and the other which carries 3500 litres of water.

And, he says the service’s equipment and its officers’ uniforms are old and need replacing.

“If a fireman from Australia comes to visit our fire service, he will laugh at us,” Private Tavuti said.

Vanuatu’s business sector supports separating fire services from the police.

The President of the Vanuatu Chamber of Commerce and Industry, Antoine Boudier, says now is the time to make the change.

The chamber says it is concerned about Port Vila’s capacity to fight a big fire; and says making the fire service independent will allow it to attract better resources to fight fires.

Mr Boudier says when Vanuatu Fire Service was established in the 1970’s before Independence, the country’s population was small and there were not many business established.

But he says fire risks have grown along with the size of the population and the number of businesses operating.

Dennis Taravaki, whose home was burnt to the ground in Mele Village in early May, says two fire trucks from Port Vila turned up late to put out the fire at his house.

He says when the two trucks arrived, they didn’t have enough water on board to extinguish the fire and officers had to call on locals to fetch water to put out the blaze.

Mr Taravaki’s wife is calling on the Government to urgently upgrade the nation’s fire-fighting capacity.

“My heart aches, I have not slept a whole night since the fire,” Mrs Taravaki said.

“I lost a lot of my property in the fire because the fire trucks came so late.

“I call on the Vanuatu Government to recognise the needs of its people.”

Acting Commander Iavro admits Vanuatu’s fire services in Luganville and Port Vila are “very poor” and says the mobile force “will work to improve them”.

Mr Iavro says infrastructure projects are already underway that will improve the fire services in both Luganville and Port Vila.

The projects at Cook Barracks in Port Vila and Tiroas Barracks in Luganville will produce new workshops, accommodation and training facilities, and a refurbished medical centre by 2022.

He says the Vanuatu Mobile Force also expects to receive more fire service trucks and equipment from development partners.

Mr Iavro called on the Vanuatu Police Force, the Vanuatu Fire Service and other authorities like water companies to ensure fire-fighting equipment and fire hydrants are compatable.

He says currently, the fire service’s water and pipe systems on fire trucks does not connect with fire hydrants, which makes fighting fires difficult.

In 2019, the Daily Post reported that former long-term Commander of the Vanuatu Fire Service, Sakary Faithful, had called on the Government and Lord Mayors to shift fire services from police to municipal control.

Mr Faithful said then, that the responsible Ministers and Lord Mayors had ignored the issue.

Experts say Vanuatu needs a Fire Service Act that would allow the service to improve its chain of command, raise funds and develop officer training and pay levels.

They say smoke and fire alarms in homes and more public fire hydrants are also needed to ensure rapid responses to fires.

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