Mohinga Talks: The Rise of Myanmar Fire Service Department

A comedian joked;

“Epic fire broke out, fire fighters arrived in time……. to witness the ashes”.

People laughed. Because it was totally relatable. Or they thought it was.

Similar scene as above had happened quite frequently during the previous decades when Myanmar was still under the military junta. At that time, everything in general was bad. Employment rate was bad, economy was bad, education was bad. The country and the general public were destined to fail except for a handful of people at the very top who were moving in the opposite direction from the rest. There must have been a long list of qualified contenders if there was an annual award for the most dysfunctional government department yet the one that frequently got a lot of sticks from the public was Myanmar Fire Service Department. 

Due to the limited power supply in the country back in those days, many households had had to rely on diesel generators, inverters, oil lamps and candle lights for basic lighting. And fire break outs were quite common; especially in the summer, due to poor quality products, extreme heat, human errors and whatnot. Massive smoke clouds up in the sky ignited by fire breakouts were terrifying yet familiar sights. In most cases, fire engines came into the rescue and put out the fire eventually. But not before people were able to rush into the scenes and looked on in terror. And regardless of what caused the fire in the first place, people always remembered to reserve some blame for the fire service; 

“Firemen showed up too late”  

“Fire engines did not carry sufficient water, or any water at all” 

And a prominent one was “Fire fighters did not bring out water unless they received water first”. Water; pronounced “yei” in Burmese language, was a slang for money so it implied that fire service allegedly took bribe to save lives. 

Corruption was not an uncommon experience in the country back then so such accusations sounded very real and scary. Imagine your house is on fire, fire engines show up but do not put out fire until you pay them. Cruel but no concrete evidence was widely reported to back such stories and similarly no major effort from the government was seen to debunk the theories. As a result, mockery towards Myanmar Fire Service Department became regular jokes across the country.

A couple of decades later, people’s perception on the same department has changed dramatically. Now, people seem to think this is a reliable entity run by responsible people. So, Mohinga Matters spoke with Ko Win Han Thar, a sergeant in command & control center of Myanmar Fire Services Department to understand this change of heart from public. 

“It wasn’t just fire service that was under criticism in the past, a large number of government departments were underperforming at that time. And it has taken years of planning and implementation in building and maintaining our department’s reputation”.

As he said, so many other things may have been planned and carried out; however, what really won the public’s heart was the Facebook page.

When you hear fire sirens or news any day or night, you go to Myanmar Fire Services Department’s Facebook page and you will see all the information you need to know such as incident locations, fire levels and number of vehicles being sent out and progress of evacuation etc. First of all, it is comforting that fire fighters know where the fire is and the instant information system essentially mitigates the stress that people naturally have over hearing fire sirens.

Our interviewee has been involved with Facebook activities since day one; however, he refused to give credit to just one person.

“Transparency was not necessarily our strongest area a couple of decades ago but it was not difficult convincing people upstairs that there were many upsides in sharing fire news transparently. We just had to agree on what’s shareable or not and train people based on that logic.” 

And what they have been informing on public is just the right amount. When it comes to fire incidents, all we need to know is location, response action and progress status.

The way government offices manage their social media fronts has been frequently criticized. More often than not, things that should not be shared on a social media get shared on a social media and vice versa. So, how fire service manages its Facebook page which now has 1.1 million followers is quite impressive. 

“When Facebook introduced its “live” feature, it certainly broadened the way we could share information. Instead of only using texts, now we can broadcast the whole picture to the inquisitive minds. People instantly get informed the location of fire incidents plus they can see the live feed of action. It should clear up opinions about fire engines not bringing sufficient water!”

Just like that, Facebook has played a vital role in reuniting the public and the fire services in Myanmar despite growing concerns over data abuse of its users at the other side of the world. 

It’s important to share instant news but it’s even more important to carry out effective operations. 

“We live by the motto “no information, no operation”. Getting information aka spotting a fire or a smoke is number one priority for the fire service on daily basis. When we realized that fighting fire was no longer just using muscles alone, we turned to technology for a hand in order to get instant news. Technology now plays a key role in monitoring of incidents, response activities & internal coordination.”  

Command & Control Center was initiated in 2008/2009 and fully implemented in 2012 with a mission to detect and receive accurate information. There are four sub channels under command & control center that fire service relies on in monitoring and approaching fire accidents.

E-watching Tower System: Eighteen giant CCTVs have been installed on tall towers of Yangon detecting smoke and fire within downtown. The cameras can reach 5 miles in a normal weather Once it spots something, people in the control room informs local fire department immediately; resulting in a quick response process.  Similar systems have been in place in many states and regions too. 

Vehicle Tracking: GPS have been installed on fire engines so HQ can conveniently check on the fire engines on the road. Plus, the system installed on each vehicle reports the level of fuel & water inside tanks so in case anyone shows up without water, the control central will know ahead of curious crowds unlike in the old days.

191 Report: Another innovative initiative the department took was development of mobile application. 191 Report app is now downable on google playstore. Using which, one can report any fire incident or accident encountered on the road. Report is sent automatically to the nearest fire department so one has got to make sure report is sent out in a timely manner. The app has now 10,000+ downloads.

3G Camera: Cameras have been installed on the first stand out engines that broadcast live feed to the HQ so the supervisor can monitor the action in real time, estimate the level of fire and send in assistance accordingly. 

“It was not like one big change on a particular day, the use of technology has always been a part of our long-term strategy and it’s been realized progressively.”  

With technology in place for fighting fire & communication, people in the fire force are not just the muscle guys anymore. So, in this day and age where companies pay too much money to job agencies in hiring the best genes in the pool, it’s interesting how recruitment works in the fire service. 

“There is internal recruitment where family members of the current staffs tend to join the force when they have come of age. And there is external recruitment where new faces join the department. For some, a stable income and pension may be tempting and for some, being a part of the crew may sound exciting but there is something more powerful at play here called passion.”

Yes. The main drive behind joining the fire service for most people is their passion to fight fire and save lives. It may sound like another propaganda we had encountered too often in the past. But as there are people who get excited about volunteering during the weekends or cooking for the homeless, there are also people who inspire in putting out fire. Now, the fire service has a total number of 14,000 permanent employees. 

“If you don’t have that passion in you, you cannot mentally force yourself to join the team”.

Old habits die hard. Fire fighters still get mentioned along with many other government officials during standup comedies time from time possibly due to shortage of quality material. Regardless, in public’s eyes, they are no longer the butt of corruption jokes anymore, they are no longer accused of carrying insufficient amount of water anymore or they are no longer accused of accepting money to put out fire anymore. Because Myanmar Fire Services Department have been out there, fighting fire, rescuing cats, capturing giant pythons, evacuating people from the wells while millions of people witness…live on Facebook. 

Zwe Oak Soe 

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