- Written by CLAIRE SHEFCHIK
- Published: 13 October 2017
From the street, the damage to the Road Town station of the Virgin Islands Fire and Rescue Service is obvious: a blown-out roof, broken windows and doors, a sign missing its letters.
But parked outside on Tuesday was a shiny new truck, one of two recent donations from the United Kingdom, and newly arrived volunteers from Team Rubicon were being shown the ropes.
Inside the office of Chief Fire Officer Zebalon McLean, things almost looked normal.
“All this communication equipment was damaged,” Mr. McLean said. “We just now got it up and running.”
Upstairs, however, it was starting to rain. Drops fell through the exposed rafters, wetting the floors in rooms that once housed office desks and chairs, file cabinets, a secretarial pool, and countless personal trinkets from officers’ desks, as well as a wall full of patches from fire stations all over the world — only about half of which remain.
It’s a station clearly struggling for a sense of normalcy. But for Mr. McLean and his officers, perhaps the main challenge they face is psychological.
Most of the officers lost their uniforms, which hit them particularly hard because it stripped them — literally — of a physical symbol of the pride and identity of working for the fire service.
“We’re a paramilitary organisation,” Mr. McLean said. “We march, we salute. We like to be able to do that in proper uniform. But now guys are coming in jeans and t-shirts.”
Station Officer Tyrone Caddle added, “Guys are worried that we’re not out there in our full firefighting regalia. But at the same time, they want to get out there and assist the community in any way they can.”
Most fire officers lost their homes, according to Mr. McLean.
“They actually had to come into the station to get clothes, because they lost them all,” he said. “I went through my locker and found a belt. One guy said he didn’t have any belts. I gave it to him.”
The officers also take pride in their vehicles, three of which were damaged beyond repair.
“One of them, in Cappoons Bay, was destroyed when a wave washed over it,” he said. Still, he’s proud that the service was responding to calls and clearing roads within 24 hours of the storm.
Besides uniforms, equipment and trucks, the agency is even missing beds.
“The barracks are compromised, so officers, when they’re on duty, have been sleeping in vehicles to try to get to some rest,” he said.
Mr. McLean credits at least five agencies from abroad with helping pick up the pieces, including the United Kingdom volunteer organisation Team Rubicon, which has continued to stop in and provide help.
“They helped us clear out the entire second floor of the station,” he said. “We appreciate the support because we usually have to deliver the support.”
Help from abroad
The department also received assistance from officers of the Antigua and Barbuda Fire Department and a team of two EMTs and two paramedics from Barbados, who have since returned home.
And thanks to the recent donations of two vehicles from the UK, the agency now has four fire utility vehicles, including two fire engines.
Soon, though, Mr. McLean and his officers will be on their own. However, because they are so often occupied with responding to others’ calls and needs, the timeline for getting back to business as usual is difficult to predict.
“Ideally, we’d get our services back up and running by the end of the year,” he said. “But it’s not just about having a bright Christmas. It’s about restoring hope.”
It also troubles him that the territory’s emergency service numbers are not yet operational.
“The equipment we have is not robust enough to fix them,” Mr. McLean explained. “Cell phones need a hub, and we don’t have that hub.”
However, Digicel and CCT have donated two temporary phone lines to use in place of the regular line, which he said have been working well so far.
In the absence of emergency numbers, residents in need of officers’ assistance have been contacting the department via Facebook, Twitter, WhatsApp, and in ways so old-fashioned that a 19th Century fire brigade would recognise them.
“People have just been running down the street calling to us for help,” he said, adding, “It’s not a comfortable feeling.”
The fact that the department is not properly equipped to perform its job weighs heavily on officers.
“It’s caused us a lot of sleepless nights: that someone’s life may be in danger, that we may get to someone’s property too late to save it.”
He knows that the public, accustomed to officers being available to do their jobs whenever they’re called, are not as sympathetic to the challenges going on at the department.
“Nobody wants to hear it,” Mr. McLean said. “Nobody wants to hear that officers are stressed, that they’re working long hours, that their future is uncertain. The public fully expects that when they call us, we will come.”
An additional sore spot for the department is all of the burning garbage and debris from Irma. The government issued a statement asking residents to stop burning now that trash collection has resumed normally. But many haven’t, and it’s causing a real headache for the department — literally in some cases.
“Healthy people will get sick, and sick people will get sicker,” Mr. McLean said.
He thinks many people don’t recognise how toxic the fumes are, and the government has too much on its plate to properly educate people about it.
Still, other officers at the station expressed optimism. “This is our new normal. First days after impact, we were worried,” Mr. Caddle said. “But we’re going to come back better.”
Mr. McLean agreed that it is important to restore hope.
“When people start thinking that this is how it will always be, it can get depressing,” he said. “You have to think bright thoughts.”