Nalzaro: Firefighters’ capability

THE huge fire that engulfed Metro Department Store in Ayala Center Cebu since Friday night has tested the capability of our firefighters from the Bureau of Fire Protection (BFP) and other volunteer fire brigades in combating fires in high-rise buildings. According to some fire and emergency unit officials, it will take three days before the fire will be totally controlled.

Yesterday was the second day and as of this writing, fire personnel were still fighting to contain the flames. Fire officials announced before noon that the fire was under control. This means, the fire was contained and could no longer spread to other areas inside the mall. The fourth floor of the building has collapsed and it is feared that the entire structure might also collapse. Other parts of the entire mall, though, have not been affected. But adjacent tenants might also have been affected as fire personnel failed to penetrate the mall because of extreme heat and thick smoke.

Fire officials described the blaze as no ordinary fire. There is no doubt we have brave and courageous firefighters who are willing to sacrifice their limbs and lives to control the fire, but the lack and shortage of firefighting equipment made them ineffective. A BFP official admitted that they don’t have enough breathing apparatus to protect them from the smoke. Fire officials prohibited their men from entering the building when heavy smoke was detected last Friday night. Also, there was zero visibility and extreme heat as smoke blanketed the entire building, including the basement and parking area.

There were reports that several vehicles parked in the basement were trapped as mall security guards prevented owners from retrieving their vehicles so they wouldn’t be suffocated.

Some shoppers said the mall did not raise the fire alarm when heavy smoke was detected. The fire started on the third floor in the toys stockroom of the Metro Ayala as the shopping mall was about to close at 9 p.m.

The building has sixth floors and firefighters encountered difficulty in controlling the flames when it broke out on the third floor because they don’t have a high fire ladder. How could they concentrate in the area where the fire started when their hoses could not reach the third floor? What they did was to “fire water canons” from the ground. Aw, igo ra tilapan sa kayo ang ilang tubig.

Using a jackhammer and backhoe, firemen bore holes in the building so their hoses could penetrate. But it did not prevent the fire from spreading to other floors because of strong winds. If our firefighters were ineffective in controlling a fire on the sixth floor, how much more for a building with 30 to 50 floors. Residential condominiums and Business Process Outsourcing buildings are mushrooming in the city. What if, God forbid, these high-rises are struck by fire? Although some claim the new buildings have water sprinklers and are earthquake-proof. But I doubt these facilities will effectively function when calamities strike.

Some quarters are quick to conclude that the fire was intentional. This is because of the previous incidents where Gaisano buildings and properties were burned under mysterious circumstances. These allegations, speculations and conjectures are unfair to the management.

These talks crop up as there are reports that the contract between Ayala Center Cebu and the Gaisanos is about to expire. But Cebu Holdings and Ayala Center Cebu corporate communication’s officer, Atty. Jeanette Japzon, denied such report. Rumormongers should stop spreading this “hearsay” as it might damage the reputation of the mall’s owner. Why will the Gaisanos do it when they are not the owner of the building and they cannot claim an insurance for the burned building. Let fire investigators do their work first before coming up with a conclusion as to the source of the fire.

The fire also displaced hundred of employees. But management assured that the workers will be assigned to other branches and subsidiaries of the Metro Retail Stores Group Inc.
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