Firefighters at Juddha Barun Yantra received a call from a panicky youngster as they were bracing for yet another chilly night a few days ago. “Please hurry! Fire has engulfed the whole house. Women and small children are inside and their fate is not known,” the boy on the phone pleaded.
The officer on duty at Kathmandu´s only fire brigade asked the seemingly petrified boy for his location and the firefighters rushed towards Balkhu at 9:30 p.m.
“But we could not see any smoke when we reached that area,” fire chief Lila Raj Gachha Magar recalls. “We called back for the location, and the boy cursed us for the delay, telling us to turn back as we had overshot the location.”
The boy was evidently livid when the firemen called him a second time. ´Jasto sarkar, testai damkal (fire brigade just as bad as government)!!! Nothing remains. Everything has burnt down”. The boy then called them to a back alley but they could see no sign of any fire. “We were wandering around, siren blaring at midnight, until the boy stopped taking our calls,” said Basu Dev Hengaju, a fire brigade officer.
If tackling fires in the narrow lanes of the Valley was not trouble enough for the ill-equipped firefighting units, they now also have to deal with pranksters who seek to have some fun at their expense. Kathmandu´s fire brigade receives dozens of prank calls every day. “Go and sit by the hotline, and you´ll be astounded at the number of hoax calls coming in every hour,” Magar said.
So much so that firemen now step out of their premises only after verifying the fire alerts with the police, thus seriously compromising the prospects of timely fire response. Deputy Superintendant of Police (DSP) at Metropolitan Police Range, Hanuman Dhoka Dhiraj Pratap KC is worried about the delay caused by such verification. “Fire does not wait. Delay in response by the fire brigade may invite big disaster,” KC said.
Officials have now started reporting pranksters to the police. “We have already punished seven prank callers under the Public Offense Act,” KC disclosed.
Most of the pranksters arrested are teenagers and drug users. “We released some teenagers after they apologized and promised not to repeat their mischief,” he added. Police say that many prank callers use public telephone booths, making the job of tracing them very difficult.
Children are likely to make hoax calls when they are alone at home for long periods. Staff at big offices have also been found inadvertently dialing the 101 hotline while trying out their intercoms, to the added annoyance of firemen.