Even a small flame can turn into a disastrous fire in a crowded city like Phnom Penh, especially during the dry season and many people in the country still do not have a precise understanding of fire safety measures. In an exclusive interview with Khmer Times, Major General Neth Vantha, director of the Interior Ministry’s Fire Department, discusses what people should do to prevent a fire.
KT: Can you update us on fire statistics in Cambodia in the past six months?
Maj Gen Vantha: The first semester of 2019 witnessed 429 fire incidents, an increase of 78 cases compared to the same period last year. Ten people died and 46 others were injured, 418 houses were also destroyed across the country. The most frequent causes were electrical faults and flammable substances, which accounted for 40 percent and 38 percent, respectively. Meanwhile, the causes for the other 22 percent of the incidents were unknown.
KT: What factors do you think contribute the most to such statistics?
Maj Gen Vantha: First of all, our people’s understanding of and participation in fire safety are still very limited. They only become aware and buy fire extinguishers for their homes after they have been affected or after a fire has broken out in their neighbourhood. In some areas, there is not even a single fire extinguisher or a building equipped with a fire alarm system. The only thing they can do when a fire breaks out is to call the police’s Fire Department. In such a scenario, when our fire fighters arrive at the place, the fire could have spread far beyond control. We have been trying to instruct them with official announcements or guidelines, but some of them do not pay any attention at all.
KT: Speaking of fire extinguishers, what is the proportion of Phnom Penh residents who have at least one fire extinguisher at home?
Maj Gen Vantha: I think the proportion should be around 50-60 percent. Still, most of them still depend too much on the police’s Fire Department. As an official responsible for this issue, I would like to call on everyone to prepare the necessary equipment for fire extinguishing. They could just be simple ones, such as large water buckets and sandbags. Even a blanket can be used to put out a small fire, but a fire extinguisher always comes in handy. They may not be able to put out a big fire immediately, but at least they can keep it under control.
KT: How do you make sure that the people know how to use their fire extinguishers?
Maj Gen Vantha: We frequently give them instructions through the media, such as TV and Youtube. Our working groups have also visited communities to teach people how to put out a fire with a fire extinguisher as well as how to prevent a fire from spreading. We also check whether their fire extinguishers are still working. There is a small clock on every fire extinguisher, and when its hand hits the red spot, the people need to get a new one. They also need to change it if it is too old or in a very bad condition. For safety reason, people need to monitor their fire extinguishers every three months. You may think it is not worth much now, but when a fire breaks out in your house, it is a priceless thing.
KT: Apart from that, what has your department been doing to help people and businesses prevent a fire?
Maj Gen Vantha: With a guideline from Samdech Kralahom Sar Kheng, we will organise a large-scale workshop this August to educate governmental institutions, NGOs and businesses about fire safety. These organisations can further spread the message to people in the communities. Another measure is that we are pushing our partners, which include five local companies that work in fire safety measures, to help people when an incident happens. We also ask them to train our fire fighters to do their job better with modern technology.
KT: When it comes to construction, does your department cooperate with any other institution to improve fire safety in buildings?
Maj Gen Vantha: Concerning this topics, we are working closely with the Ministry of Land Management, Urbanisation and Construction. We all know that the number of buildings in Cambodia, especially in Phnom Penh, has been dramatically increasing, making fire protection more important than ever. Before a large-scale construction begins, such as that of a skyscraper or a factory, the builder or contractor is required to get permission from the fire department, which monitors their blueprints of fire safety systems. However, households do not have to do this.