Even if it means risking their lives, brave firefighters in Hatay are among the first responders in emergency situations in a vast geography. Often putting every day, the lives of others before their own to prevent casualties in fires and any other natural disasters, traffic accidents, or even a naughty little kitten, stuck on the top of a tree; Hatay's firefighters are the true heroes of the city with a population of around 1,6 million, out of which 447,884 are Syrians under Temporary Protection (SuTPs); fleeing war, conflict and tragedy. Serving relentlessly with honour to both local communities and refugees, we witnessed a day of a firefighter when we visited the province at the occasion of the delivery of new firefighting vehicles; provided under Turkey Resilience Project in Response to the Syria Crisis (TRP) .
The fire alarm bell rang, as we were leaving the place. The fire fighters were rushing into the vehicles, and fully equipped red-trucks were launching out from the Central Fire Station, as we were edging away slowly. I silently said, “Good luck friends” and send my best thoughts to the people I recently met with. They were going on another mission; another emergency situation God knows what and where. It was an exceptional day for us, as we were present at Hatay Metropolitan Municipality Central Fire Fighting Station, for the delivery ceremony of three newly purchased vehicles under “Turkey Resilience Project in Response to the Syria Crisis (TRP)”, but it was an ordinary day for the brave fire brigade crew of Hatay Municipality to continue saving lives. At the end of the day, saving lives doesn’t wait.
As UNDP team, we witnessed the round-the-clock challenging tasks of the firefighters at Hatay Metropolitan Municipality Fire Department's Station in central Antakya. And how well-equipped emergency intervention and firefighting vehicles could create a difference in public services in the southern province of Turkey, Hatay, where the existing capacities were already deficient, with the ongoing Syria crisis now in its eight year. It was a sunny December afternoon in Hatay, a city most famous with its culture, gastronomy and architecture; being the cradle of many civilisations in the past. The province has always been famous when it comes to the very rich culture of living together, respect for others and tolerance, putting the region a must see place and experience for visitors, tourists and travellers.
A candid ceremony was just held at the forecourt of Hatay Municipality Central Fire Station. Both Turkish and European Union (EU) flags were waving, just beside the United Development Programme (UNDP) banners. Firefighting vehicles were decorated and placed one next to another, with young crew members explaining us how the equipment works in which emergency situation. Members of the Municipality, public officials and other people from the Metropolitan Firefighting Department were making sure that everything was proper and ready, before the arrival of the Mayor for the delivery ceremony of the newly purchased and equipped vehicles.
We were excited to be part of something important, not exactly witnessing before what a fully equipped firefighting vehicle meant; when it comes to emergency intervention situations. Neither of us got stuck in car, desperately waiting to be rescued from a squeezed metal after a serious accident. None of us had waited in that bunch of battered metal for hours, despite the help had arrived, but there was no proper equipment at the intervening emergency vehicle; such as cutting machines, or hydraulic clippers. Nor had we rushed onto a rooftop and waited for help during a fire incident, but the fire ladder was short, so the help meant nothing because we were beyond reach and thus, saving.
Newly purchased firefighting vehicles were delivered to the Municipality, and the Hatay Mayor, Mr. Lütfü Savaş had just finished his remarks, extending gratitude to UNDP, implementing UN agency of the Turkey Resilience Project in Response to the Syria Crisis (TRP), and the European Union (EU), the donor of the TRP; underlining the value of burden sharing in a city where the influx of Syrian refugees in Turkey had also resulted in an unprecedented demand for municipal services, including waste management and fire-fighting services.
As a matter of fact, additional demand for municipal services is always difficult for any city. However, it is even harder for the municipalities, where infrastructure and service delivery capacities were already stretched before the arrival of the refugees. According to the recent data, around thirty percent of the population in Hatay province are Syrians under Temporary Protection, who have fled the tragedy in their home country and took shelter in the bordering Hatay. The sudden and significant increase in population have worsened the existing challenges and have led to even higher levels of underserved communities, risking further deterioration of social cohesion.
“It is so important for us to be always ready for any kind of emergencies” said Cengiz, one of the members of the brave fire brigade crew. “And being ready means being trained, well equipped with latest technology when attempting to saving lives.” Cengiz said that the new equipment, provided under TRP, has provided them to make life-changing interventions in his duty in recent months. “Cutting machines and hydraulic sorting machines let us make the earliest interventions in traffic accidents, where people are jammed inside their cars. With this new technology, we can intervene as quickly as possible, cut the squeezed metal and sort the parts out, then have access to passengers and accident victims before it is too late”. I have never thought before, that the technological developments in firefighting equipment have such crucial importance to human life, when seconds matter at a time of an emergency. Same applies to fires, earthquakes, floods and other kind of emergency situations. For an ordinary person, fire fighting vehicles are just big red tankers with sirens and red lights and ladders on them; flushing water into a fire incident. But it is not that simple…
Training and awareness raising, prevention and supervision, firefighting and responding to fire and rescue-related incidents are the main concerns of the firefighters in Hatay. The changing nature of the emergency situations; meaning earthquakes, landslides, floods and especially fires and other fire and rescue-related incidents in Hatay province, with its already strained capacity, have caused before, loss of life and injuries, along with financial losses and other unrecoverable losses leading to damages to national wealth, welfare and cultural, historical and natural heritages.
Recently released metropolitan municipality regulations have also expanded metropolitan municipalities responsibilities to cover district and village level firefighting services, which has added new pressure to the demand side. Municipalities in the Southern provinces have indicated a significant increase in terms of the demand for firefighting services, particularly in urban settings.
Fevzi Bey, who devoted his life to the service of the people of Hatay, at Municipal Firefighting Department, now a senior advisor to the Mayor, explained the situation; “We are serving both local communities and Syrian refugees with limited resources. It’s been eight years since the Syria crisis began, but our needs have grown faster than what we got”. When drinking his tea in the meeting room while briefing us on the capacities and needs of the Firefighting Department, he added “UNDP’s support is most valuable to us, not only providing vehicles that increased our capacity, but also infrastructure development and technical support with respect to municipal services”
UNDP had been the only UN agency in Turkey so far, providing direct support to municipalities on waste management and municipal services, including infrastructure development and technical support. The TRP expands those efforts allowing delivery at scale and expansion to other municipalities. In addition to that, the Project complements infrastructure support with technical capacities for municipalities, in terms of planning and design of services delivery.
Based on a UNDP conducted Municipal Need Assessment, Hatay and Şanlıurfa provinces are most in need of support because of their lack of required firefighting vehicles and equipment. The TRP, therefore, supports these two municipalities with the provision of hardware and first response multipurpose firefighting vehicles.
“It takes three minutes, to put off a fire when it begins. This is the base-line. After that, you cannot do it on your own, that’s where we step in. That’s what the science says” added Fevzi Bey; when telling us about the importance of early and fast intervention in seconds when an emergency situation arises. Taking a sip from his tea, we witnessed the true respect he spreads around, and how young firefighters looks at him with great admiration. “When seconds do matter in these situations, your vehicle park is of crucial importance; because faster you are, closer you are to save lives of your fellow countrypeople. And these new vehicles enable us to revert faster and intervene more effectively” he said and added; “Listen, it is still indeed a small city, and everyone knows each other. Years at the service of our people, when we got a call sign for an accident, or a fire; every time we get one these red trucks, we know that we are going to help someone we know, and we wish that we are not too late. Now we are serving to our Syrian sisters and brothers as well. It is our duty, and worth risking our own lives”. I remembered what one of the crew from the brigade told me outside in the courtyard while chatting: “Starting our shift every day, we first read the firefighter's prayer that goes, ‘My God, give me strength so that I can come to the help of an endangered creature, especially a small child or elderly person before it is too late.’”
The brave firefighting brigade of Hatay Municipality serves both Syrians under Temporary Protection and their host communities despite limited resources. They don’t complain, they don’t rest, they don’t make excuses. Their duty is to help people and communities. Their communities. Regardless of nationality, race, ethnic origin. They save lives every day. Just like in their prayer; “give me strength so that I can come to the help of an endangered creature…”
According to recent data on 2018 provided by the Municipality, Hatay Metropolitan Firefighting Department intervened to 7,671 emergency cases out of which 5,722 are fires, and 1,949 are rescuing missions. Even only two of the vehicles provided by the UNDP under TRP were used in 233 cases, which means sixteen percent of the overall interventions in fire incidents in province-wide, and twenty five percent in county-wide. According to the available data, more than 480,000 people have benefited from the newly purchased vehicles.
I was deep in thought, in our car with my teammates, and the ceremony ended minutes ago, when the emergency bells rang, and the rushing inside the forecourt of the Hatay Central Firefighting Department had begun. We were witnessing an emergency situation, where lives could be saved, and UNDP and the EU had the opportunity to jointly contribute in the situation. That was real. That wasn’t in another technical report, or in a documentary, or even in the news. We all looked for the last time, at the brave members of the brigade rushing in their red trucks and vehicles breaking out of ceremony order and going out one by one. There I remembered what Cengiz had told me “Listen brother, the next time we go on an emergency mission, I will make a video of how these vehicles and equipment make a difference and save lives”. I was not sure if I wished to receive that video, but I finally understood his point.