By Leilani Katherine
Like everyone else in Samoa, especially in the Apia area, I was so shocked and saddened by the fire that destroyed the Savalalo Handicraft Market on Saturday evening.
I was on my way to the airport at 8pm driving past the fire station in town when a fire truck raced out and headed towards the market.
Only minutes before, my son was showing me pictures on Facebook of the Market fully alight with the flames and smoke fully visible to us from the car as we travelled along Beach Road. We were all asking the same question - why is the fire truck going now to the fire when the whole building is fully alight? They should have been there on site, long ago!
After watching the news last night and seeing the distress of the more than 500 business owners who had small handicraft, tailoring, food court and small shop businesses there, you can’t help but feel rage and disappointment in our Samoa Fire and Emergency Services Authority (SFESA).
According to the report on Samoa Quality Broadcasting’sTV1, footage showed the fire beginning in one of the back blocks of the food court. At the time of this footage, the rest of the building was still intact.
With so many gas bottles in the food court area, it didn’t take long for them to explode and add much destructive fuel to the fire, which was already burning up the tinder dry wooden structures and fittings inside the market.
Listening to the accounts of the business owners, who met at the public park to discuss what had happened, they started ringing the fire department as soon as the fire broke out in the one food stall around 6.30-7pm, but the fire trucks didn’t start arriving until close to 8pm.
On social media, people were posting that they had been ringing to report it but S.F.E.S.A. were treating the calls as hoaxes and hung up on callers. One of the business owners on the TV1 report said she had rung S.F.E.S.A. six times to try and get a fire truck to respond to her urgent calls.
The response by S.F.E.S.A. is disgraceful to say the least. What were they doing on that day when people tried to call them? Why didn’t they attend the fire straight away, or at least check if there was any merit in the so-called ‘hoax calls’ they were dismissing? It was only down the road, a few blocks from the station, not on the other side of the island. What is it with our fire trucks turning up to fires with no water in the tanks? Or pumps not working, as was also reported? What do S.F.E.S.A. staff do all day, anyway? It’s not like we have fires everyday in Samoa, not even every week, and certainly not of this magnitude.
These are the things they should be attending to on a daily basis: checking their trucks are ready to go in any emergency; checking the tanks are full of water; checking all pumps are working; checking that all equipment is on board and ready for any emergency; checking that all staff know what to do when a report comes in of a fire, and that all staff know where fire hydrants are in town. If equipment isn’t working, it should be a priority to get them fixed immediately. These are all basic actions we count on SFESA to be performing in preparation of a fire or emergency.
What’s the point of having a fire service if they can’t even perform when we need them? Seriously!
We pay taxes to have a fire service. Donors such as Vivere New Zealand have donated paramedic supplies and training. The Australian government donated three fire trucks in 2010 after one was damaged responding to the 2009 tsunami, and a volunteer paramedic worked with them for three years training up staff. And in July last year, the Japanese government donated four fire trucks to S.F.E.S.A .in order to, get this, “to respond quickly to fire and emergency situations”. What a joke, a very bad joke!
Well, S.F.E.S.A., have failed taxpayers and donors alike, but most of all, they have failed the more than 500 families who had businesses at the Savalalo Handicraft Market.
Five hundred families who had small businesses that supported the care of the elderly and the children in their families, as one of the owners tearfully reported on TV1 last night. Families who had created thousands and thousands of dollars worth of products including, carvings, tanoa, necklaces, puletasi, aloha shirts, tee-shirts, jewelry, printed fabric, ie Samoa and ie Tonga, afa, shell and bone headresses and outfits for saufa’i, in support of our tourism industry.
Families who had food stalls which fed the masses on their way to work, and our children on their way home from school. Families who had shops which offered basic supplies to workers catching the bus home long after the supermarkets are closed.
Five hundred families have had their livelihoods turned to ashes in just a few short hours, mainly due to the tardiness, and lack of care by the S.F.E.S.A. If they couldn’t even help one of those 500 families, what chance do we have of them helping us when we need them? Despite all the equipment, the training, the trucks, their tax-funded budget, they have failed us miserably. Why should we continue to support an authority who, when in our hour of need, weren’t there?
Leilani Katherine is a free-lance writer who supports environment, climate change, social justice, cultural, local and regional issues, and enjoys playing devil’s advocate.