Author(s): Don Bliss. Published on November 1, 2018.

Past, Present, Future

Hong Kong’s fire department honors its traditions while taking a forward-looking approach to training and technology

In May, I represented NFPA at a commemoration of the 150th anniversary of the Hong Kong Fire Services Department. I had been to Hong Kong a number of times, but this was my first real introduction to its local fire services. I discovered a highly trained and skilled professional fire department that is focused on the future while also recognizing the value of embracing its heritage. It also gave me another reason to be impressed by the commitment to excellence and the dedication to public service of firefighters around the world.

Hong Kong faces an array of complex hazards every day. With a population of 7.4 million over 426 square miles, it is the world’s fourth most densely populated region. High-rise apartment buildings perch on the sides of mountains and hills, and the business districts teem with pedestrians. Vehicular traffic feeds into a complex network of highways, bridges, and tunnels. Ferries, cruise ships, and cargo ships ply the harbor, and the intermodal container port is one of the world’s busiest. Hong Kong’s airport is ranked eighth in passenger traffic and handles more air cargo than any other airport in the world. Complicating all of this is the variety of cultures and languages represented by residents and visitors.

The fire departments that are best prepared to protect their communities are those that are the best trained, and Hong Kong has a modern fire and EMS training academy that rivals any I’ve seen. The academy is responsible for recruit training, the training of on-duty firefighters and EMTs, development of specialized technical teams, and sophisticated leadership and command training for the officer corps. As part of the anniversary celebration, guests toured the facility and were treated to demonstrations by many of the fire and rescue technical teams.

I was fascinated by the design of the training academy. Traditional features form the core of its operations: classroom building, dormitory, and administrative offices, along with buildings that accommodate live burn training, ladder operations, emergency medical training, vehicle extrication, hazardous materials response, and physical fitness. But what sets the academy apart are the sophisticated training props that create realistic conditions for the types of emergency incidents common in Hong Kong. A “collapsed” building can be configured to simulate a wide range of urban search-and-rescue and confined-space scenarios. High-angle rescue teams train on a web of steel girders, and the aircraft crash rescue simulator combines the features of a Boeing 737 passenger jet with those of a two-level Airbus 380 wide-body jet. A ship simulator enables firefighters to practice marine firefighting and rescue evolutions; to add realism, the “ship” is surrounded by a water channel that is used for swift-water rescue training. As I watched the demonstrations, it was apparent that their training had paid off. Not only did they execute their assignments flawlessly, but it was obvious that firefighter safety is of the utmost importance to both the rank-and-file and the department’s leadership.

The anniversary of the Hong Kong Fire Services Department gave the government of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region of the People’s Republic of China a chance to showcase the professionalism and capabilities of its first responders. But the celebration also showcased a tradition dating back to Hong Kong’s British colonial era. The department’s organizational structure, operational procedures, uniforms, bagpipe band, and even its parade marching style reflect a pride in its historical roots. Hong Kong is a wonderful example of a fire department that has not allowed its traditions to impede its mandate to provide citizens with the highest level of service and expertise.

DONALD BLISS is vice president of Field Operations for NFPA. Top Illustration: Michael Hoeweler