“From the October 18, 2007 Karsaz blast in Karachi, to the fire in Bolton Market and the Muharram bomb blast, I have seen it all,” says Zafar Ahmad who became a firefighter in 1997.
Karachi, with its population of approximately 22 million people, should ideally have over 200 fire stations. The number today stands at 22. Firefighters are ill-equipped, under-trained and underpaid and often find themselves risking their lives for very little in return. But what they lack in resources, they make up for in passion.
“According to international fire law, there should be one fire station for every 200,000 people,” says Zafar. “There are high rises everywhere and it’s very congested in most areas of the city. Instead of things getting easier, they’re getting increasingly difficult.”
What makes things harder for the firefighters is that builders do not abide by building codes. There are no proper fire escapes or marked signs and most buildings do not have fire extinguishers.
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“Unfortunately, there’s no system here that when a new building is being constructed, a fire officer goes to survey it to design and implement a fire escape system,” says Zafar. “Imagine, we arrive sometimes to find that we don’t even have access to water, how can we put out a fire without water.”
Saving lives, protecting homes, and extinguishing deadly blazes are a day’s work for Zafar, a firefighter.
Every morning during roll call at the station, Zafar and his colleagues exchange banter about the night before. All these men have families, bills and children’s education to worry about. But what worries them most is what would happen if they were injured on the job.
“If some accident or incident happens, we have to pay the way everyone else has to. People who don’t have the financial means don’t get the treatment then. So this is an enormous problem.”
Zafar knows this firsthand, as he was injured on the job a few years ago.
“When I arrived at the hospital, they told me they would have to amputate my foot. At that time I felt my life had come to an end,” says Zafar. The doctors told Zafar that he would never be able to walk or even stand up.
“The first time I saw what my foot looked like I started crying. I went home and showed it to my wife, but she said that God will fix everything."
He continues: "Every time I would put my foot on the ground, I would get a spasm in my leg. I told my doctor that there’s a small bump near the heel of my foot and every time I try to step on it, my entire body jolts.”
Zafar started using a wheelchair and spent most of his days depressed in his small apartment.
“I would look at my children and wonder who would feed and educate them,” he says. “I was depressed and my wife could not stand seeing me like that, she encouraged me to start afresh.”
Zafar spent a few months literally just looking out of the window and smoking cigarettes. “I live in a home provided by the government and if I retire I would have to vacate it. I would just sit alone and think about all these things.”
“If some accident or incident happens, we have to pay the way everyone else has to. People who don’t have the financial means don’t get the treatment."
Then one day, he woke up and decided to take control of things. He began exercising and despite the pain, started serious rehabilitation work. Then eventually, he left his wheelchair and started using crutches.
“There came a time where I could wear my uniform again and go to work,” he says with a smile. “Everyone always told me that I should just sit at home, because I was still earning part of my salary money. But I don’t want to feel or portray myself as crippled or disabled, nor do I want to earn money by not doing anything.”
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Zafar is always the first one to answer a call when the phone rings at his fire station. “I’m always on the first car out of here after the first call has been made. Within 2 minutes I’ve left for the incident site.”
It is his passion for the city of Karachi that keeps him on his toes literally.
“I am a son of Karachi and I will serve the city till the day I die,” he says.
Published in Dawn, Sunday Magazine, February 15th, 2015