‘It’s not easy telling parents that their child is dead’ Four Russian firefighters talk about saving lives and taking the blame

On Sunday, March 25, a fire at the “Winter Cherry” shopping center in Kemerovo killed 60 people, including dozens of children. Firefighters couldn’t reach the building’s top floor, where moviegoers were trapped inside a theater. Relatives of the victims have accused the firefighters of abandoning these people. Meduza correspondent Irina Kravtsova spoke to several firemen from cities across the country about the tragedy in Kemerovo, and asked them about their profession, which suddenly seems far less heroic and romantic to many Russians.

Andrey

firefighter

After college, I worked as a journalist in local newspapers for seven years. I wanted to point out existing problems in my region, tell the truth, and help society. But I quickly gave up on this idea, because the editors cut out everything incriminating from my articles and replaced it with praise for local officials. My dream has always been not just to work, but also to be useful — so I got a job in the fire service with the Emergency Situations Ministry. Here, I finally felt like I was in the right place.

Not many people choose to work in firefighting: to get the job, you’ve got to do the initial training in federal universities and at the ministry’s educational institutions — at your own expense. Sometimes people from rural areas simply can’t afford to move 300 kilometers [185 miles] to go study. They don’t cover initial tuition and they don’t provide housing. When I went to study, I rented a place to live, which cost a lot of money. In villages, you can work without a diploma as an uncertified firefighter, where you’ll need to perform the same duties as certified staff, but your monthly salary will only be 12,000 rubles [$192]. A few years ago, specialists at fire departments could train and certify firefighters on their own. Now this is only allowed at the ministry’s official educational institutions, and they’re all located in the big cities.

It is important to note that there are two different departments in the fire service: there’s the the Department of Supervisory Activities, which manages inspections, and there’s the active fire brigade — the men who put out fires and save people’s lives. I work in the latter department. We put out fires, but we don’t conduct investigations. When we arrive at the scene of a fire, what we find is usually something very sad.

To understand why everything happened in Kemerovo the way it did, you need to know how the fire service works across Russia. For several years, standby crews have been staffed at roughly 30 percent. It’s become common for just two or three firefighters to respond in a truck to a reported fire. That’s how we’ve been working recently — even with large-scale fires: three of us show up, and we don’t know where to start. Often we roll up in busted old vehicles with equipment that doesn’t always work. Some fire departments don’t even have enough fuel to get their trucks on the road.

A lot of the local fire hydrants are in disrepair, and they’ll be useless, if they’re ever needed. There’s not much time in these emergencies, right? Well, the trucks carry a tank that holds two tons of water, which is good for about seven minutes on a firehose. And later people will blame us for coming without water.

Our fire inspectors don’t do what they’re supposed to — they don’t check that businesses have working hydrants. The inspectors wear the same uniforms as firefighters; they’re officers; and they’ve graduated from the same universities. But their branch is riddled with corruption. It’s especially obvious in small towns, where everyone knows each other. My neighbor found work as a fire inspector, and within six months he owned a fancy car. And then he bought another one. It was clear what was happening.

And on top of that, the president signed a decree [in 2015] implementing “oversight holidays,” prohibiting fire officials from inspecting small businesses within the first three years of their existence.

At work, we don’t discuss the Kemerovo tragedy. But there were some glaring things [about that fire]. For example, the senior firefighter in the first responding crew takes command and determines the fire’s severity. If it’s a major fire, they need to call in different equipment. As soon as it arrives, they deploy a team of smoke divers — rescuers wearing gas masks who go into smoke-filled rooms to save people. Why couldn’t they reach the fourth floor in Kemerovo? It was a huge area with doors leading into a ton of side rooms and back rooms. In seven seconds, the smoke would have been too thick to see past your hands.

The fireteam went in and got lost. Where could they have gone in the dark, in such heavy smoke? I think that’s how it happened. And you’ve got to realize that it’s useless to head in, if a large smoke-filled area is also hotter than 700 degrees. I’m sure the firefighters never could have saved those people. It’s not as if they had the chance and didn’t take it.

I’ve read that parents of the children trapped on the fourth floor begged firefighters to follow them upstairs and rescue everyone there. But again you’ve got to remember that the team leader makes those calls. If there’s a threat that the roof might collapse, he’ll never send in his men. It could mean dooming them. We don’t work alone, where somebody runs off wherever he wants. We have a strict chain of command. When bodies are piling up in a shopping mall, anybody still in the building is in danger, and they take orders from the senior firefighter.

Firefighter training exercises, February 15, 2018
Egor Aliev / TASS / Scanpix / LETA

 

If a group of three smoke divers enters a building, all three of them have to stay together. If someone goes off on his own, the other two will only have to search for him in the smoke. You can take two steps in heavy smoke and get lost. Separating from the group is a major violation of protocol. Yes, some smoke divers might want to break off and go win a medal for bravery, but then the other members of his team would have to ask their commanding officer for reinforcements to rescue him. Firefighters can’t just give up on a missing team member and say, “Oh well, he ran off into that smoke-filled area. He’ll probably die, so let’s move on. We’ve got other things to do on the fourth floor.” It just doesn’t work like that.

The responding firefighters [in Kemerovo] probably could have radioed their commanding officer and said, “We’ve got information that there are people trapped on the next floor,” and asked for instructions. That would have been the right thing to do. Then the responsibility — maybe even criminal liability — would rest with that officer. Sometimes you have to choose the lesser of two evils, so the fewest people suffer. Making the right choice is the most difficult thing to do.

Wide corridors serve as evacuation routes in shopping centers, so people can run from the building without trampling each other. There should also be smoke-removal pumps that suck out any smoke, once the fire alarm is triggered. All exit paths are marked with green arrows that are supposed to be clearly visible even in smoke. But if there were problems with the alarm system in Kemerovo, I assume there could have been major issues with the smoke-removal pumps, meaning that people were simply cut off from the evacuation routes.

I’ve read that a man inside one of the movie theater’s screening rooms decided to seal the doors to stop smoke from filling the room — to wait for rescuers — and everyone there died. But he did exactly the right thing. Imagine a whole theater full of kids. What would have happened if someone opened the doors? People would have rushed from their seats and trampled each other. He made the only right decision there was. Except it seems the ventilation system malfunctioned, pulling smoke into the room, instead of sucking it out, and of course everyone suffocated.

Konstantin

firefighter, St. Petersburg

I’ve been a firefighter for 14 years, after starting at the age of 19 in the lowest ranks at the Emergency Situations Ministry. In 2012, I left the ministry and joined a fire department in St. Petersburg, where I worked as a manager and was promoted to chief deputy. Before long, though, I got sick of the desk job and asked to return “to the field,” where I did more good working 24 hours once every three days on alert duty, because the most important job in the fire department, I’d argue, belongs to the standby commander. This is the first person who makes decisions, and he’s the first one who arrives at the scene of a fire. His judgment determines how we fight each fire. We get about three minutes — sometimes less — to decide our approach. When you see people in windows screaming for help, you don’t have time to draw up a detailed plan.

There are several kinds of firefighters. The main group is the feds in the Emergency Situations Ministry, and then there are the local fire departments, which is where I work. We’re subject to St. Petersburg’s law enforcement, but operationally we’re all under the Emergency Situations Ministry’s patronage. Of course, I still have a lot of connections with guys who work in the ministry. We see each other often, and I know how it’s going over there.

At first, firefighters reported to the Interior Ministry. Then, in 2004, they were transferred to the Emergency Situations Ministry. It was pretty funny when the country’s 300,000 firefighters were merged with an agency comprising just 15,000 rescue workers. Nobody on our side said so aloud, but it was clear that the change was made because [Sergey] Shoigu [who led the Emergency Situations Ministry from 1994 to 2012] wanted another star on his chest and a lot more funding and status.

Afterwards, the ministry started producing more and more reports, statistics, and conference calls. Generally speaking, the bureaucracy has become much bigger than it needs to be — especially in terms of office staff. There are now all kinds of departments and sub-departments for statistics, analysis, and so on. The ministry’s main office in St. Petersburg has 300 employees, while there are only about 2,000 actual firefighters in the whole city.

Since 2014, there have been crippling cutbacks, which I connect to the obvious events in 2014 [the annexation of Crimea and war in eastern Ukraine]. The ministry’s leadership decided to mandate early retirement for all staff older than 45 [but firefighters needed 15 years of uninterrupted work to qualify for pensions]. There were a lot of cases where people were just a few months shy of retirement, and they were simply thrown into the street.

Thanks to the budget cuts, we had a gasoline shortage here in St. Petersburg in 2014. About three months before the New Year, the management told us that we’d used up all our fuel. We didn’t have anything to put into our trucks, so our city teams went on alert for the federal districts.

Just recently, I chatted with a ladder-truck driver from a federal district. He told me that the tanks in his braking system had fallen off, and he’d tied them back on using ordinary belts. Three days later, he came to work and found them still tied in place with the belts. In other words, days went by and nobody bought the necessary parts to fix the vehicle. And if something ever happens, people will come for this driver with pitchforks, saying, “What are you doing, you parasite! Why is your vehicle broken?”

That said, I have a lot of questions about the fire in Kemerovo. If you’re a firefighter and you show up on a fire truck, in full gear and a mask, with a firehose, then damn it you’ve got to go where people are waiting for you! Did the firefighters know the mall’s floor plan? Which brigade arrived first? Why did they decide to put out the fire downstairs, if they were told about people trapped on the upper floors? Why couldn’t they get there? As a firefighter myself, this last question is painful and the most important one.

We tried to contact the firefighters in Kemerovo. We asked them what happened there. They said, “We can’t tell you.” We asked, “You can’t say or you don’t want to?” They said, “We can’t.” So we didn’t ask twice.

It’s unlikely that the officers in command prohibited firefighters from going to the fourth floor for safety reasons. Believe me: it makes no difference to them, whether it’s dangerous or safe. If you have to, you start climbing. But you’ve got to understand that this was a massive fire, probably unlike anything ever before in Kemerovo, and maybe they weren’t tactically prepared. St. Petersburg is a big city, and we train for these scenarios.

I think the rescue operation failed in Kemerovo because of staff shortages, a poor knowledge of the building plan, and bad leadership from senior staff directing the firefighting efforts. And of course because people fled toward firefighter crews. Everyone has seen the video where people are running down the stairwell, making it almost impossible to drag up fire hoses and other equipment.

All these factors cost time, and the temperature was already too high. The shopping center had a large corridor paneled with plastic, and apparently the walls and ceiling caught fire. Then the blaze reached the doors and the movie theater. Maybe the people inside were still alive, but they were breathing in smoke, and it was impossible to reach them or see anything. If you don’t know where the doors are, at least approximately, you won’t find them.

Firefighting exercises at the Riviera Hotel in Kazan in preparation for the Football Confederations Cup, April 2017
Egor Aliev / TASS / Vida Press

 

When I first started working, I had veterans of the Afghan and Chechen wars under my command. These guys told me that war and firefighting were very similar. The more death you see, the more something inside you changes. Some people are tortured by questions about the justice of what we witness. It was hard for me to lose faith because I never had much to begin with. I carried out my first corpse at 19. My boss then asked me how I felt at that moment. I said, “It’s heavy, you know.” He said, “Good. You’ll be able to handle this job.” Everyone has their own way of staying calm. Some people keep it all to themselves, while others reach for an extra bottle of beer, and so on.

The Emergency Situations Ministry has a motto: “Prevention, rescue, and assistance.” But prevention doesn’t exist anymore — there’s no such thing. There is no fire prevention. You see forest fires breaking out every year. So many firefighters are killed in fires — ten times more than in the United States. And keep in mind that this is just rough statistics… I once heard heard a senior officer in the St. Petersburg division say at a conference: “First comes a lie, then comes a shameless lie, then come statistics, and then comes the Emergency Situations Ministry.”

Rostislav

firefighter

I’ve been a firefighter for more than six years, though I have two university degrees that are unrelated to saving people’s lives. After I graduated, I spent some time in an office job, but it was boring and depressing. Then I found work as a fireman, agreeing to an incomparably less comfortable life and lower salary. To provide for my family, I have to combine shifts at regional and city fire departments, even though it’s prohibited. And the thing is that in Moscow I probably have one of the biggest salaries an experienced firefighter can earn in our country: 480,000 rubles [$7,535] a year. And regionally I earn another 300,000 rubles [$4,710]. But I am completely content, and I’m always happy to go to work.

What I like best about the job is that you can see the fruits of your labor immediately. And it’s an adrenaline rush, of course.

What I dislike is that there’s always someone who’s unhappy after putting out any fire. Even if you get everyone out of a building a second before the roof caves in, someone will blame you for the roof caving in. People need to realize that fire is a force of nature. You can’t control it; you can only try to put it out. Nevertheless, people often tell us: “You’re late again, and you’re drunk and you don’t have any water!” In fact, the water we bring with us is only enough for a few minutes, and we probably look drunk because we respond to several fires in a day, and we’re wearing 30-40 kilograms [66-88 pounds] of equipment. Like it or not, but you’d wobble a bit under all that, too.

Since the fire departments merged with the Emergency Situations Ministry, the quality of our training has fallen and our methods have become outdated. That’s why it’s actually hard to call some younger firefighters professionals. At our training centers, these guys are mostly learning theory and training in simulators that only remotely capture the conditions of a real emergency. And the simulators themselves are treated like luxuries that are just there for show. To keep the machines looking brand new, nobody is really allowed to use them.

There was a fire in Kemerovo, and who’s responsible for that? The firefighters, of course. But how do you explain to everyone that in such impossible conditions this small team of firefighters couldn’t do its own job, let alone the work of 50 more firefighters (who never arrived at the scene because they don’t actually exist in Kemerovo)? Although it’s not for me to judge the small town. I work in Moscow, and lately I’ve been responding to calls with teams of just three firefighters, including myself.

It’s also the case in our country that there are virtually no training courses to prepare firefighters for scenarios in large spaces like a shopping center. Sometimes, we train offsite, and we do a lot of advance prep for these exercises about who will do what, but of course it’s all far removed from real-life conditions.

Even a well-trained firefighter, however, might lose his bearings when facing such an enormous blaze. He’s got to figure out quickly where the fire source is, how much water to use, and which equipment and what response is needed. He can deliberate some if he’s got options to spare and there’s help on the way, but put yourself in the shoes of the responding fire chief in Kemerovo. He understood perfectly well that he had a huge fire in front of him, and he didn’t know the building’s layout at all. People were suffocating there and then, and he didn’t have the equipment or the firefighters to help. He had no way to reach them.

Firefighting efforts at the “Winter Cherry” shopping center in Kemerovo, March 25, 2018
Sergey Gavrilenko / Kommersant / AFP / Scanpix / LETA

 

I saw in photographs that they used civilian utility equipment to put out some of the fires: automatic sprinkler systems and motorized lifts. Firefighters in Kemerovo have only two motorized lifts per station.

I was very angry at the Mash Telegram channel when it leaked a video from two cameras showing firefighters putting out the flames and wrote that they were supposedly working slowly, and coming and going. I couldn’t stop myself and I actually wrote them an angry note. First, for civilians to understand the whole situation, you’ve got to show the footage from all the cameras — not just two. There was more surveillance inside the mall. Maybe the firefighters seemed to be responding chaotically, but in fact they were doing their jobs in the given circumstances. I’m not defending them — I’m just stating facts.

One of the parents says the firefighters ran the other way, when he showed them where to go to rescue people. But the firefighters went where they had to. Otherwise, both the relatives of the people trapped in the movie theater and the firefighters could have ended up cut off by the fire.

We face many challenges in our line of work. Undeniably, the hardest thing is witnessing the deaths of children and seeing their scattered remains. It’s not easy telling parents that their child is dead. And it wasn’t easy when one of my comrades died in the line of duty. He carried out an order from the team’s chief officer — a real fighter with years of experience in the field. That officer wasn’t punished for sending him in. Later on, he was actually promoted.

Ilya

firefighter, Moscow

When it comes to the Emergency Situations Ministry, what you’ve got to understand is that the whole agency is bogged down in cronyism. In the past several years, young lieutenants just out of the academy have been replacing experienced fire chiefs. Some of these new guys have never managed a team before or ever put out a fire. Colonels and lieutenant colonels in the army who know nothing about firefighting or saving people are losing their jobs, and they’re finding work as fire chiefs. And they don’t have a clue what they’re doing.

A couple of years ago, a local factory caught fire. The regional fire chief showed up and stood around playing with a fire hose, while his crew actually put out the fire. They told him, “Why aren’t you doing anything? Come help us! There aren’t enough of us!” And he answered, “Remember that you are addressing a general!” Here’s a question for these generals: if putting out fires is beneath you, why did you take a job with firefighters?

These senior officers often issue insane instructions that would send us to certain death. It was only after a number of very serious mistakes that they started asking for help from actual firefighters with deploying manpower and equipment.

These senior officials don’t show up outside burning buildings. They stay at headquarters. All the questions and accusations, meanwhile, are aimed at ordinary firemen. But you need to understand that one flashlight won’t be any help in a room full of heavy black smoke, and firefighters do everything by touch when they’re in a building for the first time.

I saw on TV that relatives of the people trapped in the movie theater blamed the firefighters for not giving them masks to let them try to save their loved ones on their own. Giving people masks in those circumstances would have meant sending them to certain death. All breathing apparatuses are designed to work for 40 minutes under ideal conditions, when you’re basically inert. The more you move, the more air you consume. Factor in the extremely high temperature, and somebody not wearing a protective suit would simply burn alive.

I also worked as a diver, and I know that witnesses standing two meters [6.5 feet] apart who saw someone drown in a lake will point to spots 50 meters [165 feet] apart, when saying where they think the person went under the water. It’s not just the effects of shock; it’s also that everyone is oriented differently. That’s why it would be strange if firefighters immediately trusted some hysterical person and ran off to the smoke-filled area he described.

A fire at a radio manufacturing plant in Barnaul, December 2016
Russia’s Emergency Situations Ministry / TASS / Scanpix / LETA

 

When I’m on the job, I try not to think about the corpses as people. Otherwise, I would have lost my mind a long time ago. Now I’ve trained myself not to feel anything, even when I save people. The only emotion I haven’t managed to block is the pain you can’t avoid when you see the remains of a child.

To this day, I’m still surprised by the false, provocative claims by the Emergency Situations Ministry’s leaders that the number of fires in Russia is declining. Why would it go down? The number of high-rise apartments is growing, the number of firefighters is falling, our equipment is getting old, new equipment isn’t being provided, and firemen are dying because of incompetent management. And instead of solving these problems, our bosses just fix the stats. I tell my family: never believe any data or figures you hear on TV from the brass at the Emergency Situations Ministry.

Article originally posted by meduza.