Caribbean firefighters have a burning desire for climate justice

Record-breaking temperatures and drought conditions are straining fire services in SKN, exhausting efforts to ensure safety and security.

Like much of the rest of the world, St. Kitts and Nevis (SKN) has been feeling the sweltering heat, and it is putting a strain on the operations and resources of the fire service within the territory.  

Over the last several months, specifically July and August, the world reported some of the hottest periods ever recorded. And it is a concern for many Small Island Developing States (SIDS), such as SKN, as drought has left many places low on water.

In SKN, the Fire and Rescue Services have been fighting on both fronts to ensure the safety and security of lives and property while also battling the elements.

It is proving an exhausting task on the operations for all involved.

During his interview with Climate Tracker, Acting Fire Chief Rommel Williams revealed that climate change continues to place a strain on the operations because they are not only fighting fires but are also tasked with providing a service.

For the last several years, the Federation has been experiencing decreasing rainfall levels, which means water rationing. This year has been no different. In fact, the Minister of Water, Konris Maynard revealed at a recently held press conference that SKN is operating with a 40% rainfall deficit.

Navigating the challenges of water scarcity

Record-breaking temperatures and drought conditions are straining fire services in SKN, exhausting efforts to ensure safety and security.

The government was forced to take the position of rationing water, as they worked to find new water sources to provide for the hardest hit areas. 

In doing so, the Fire Service was tasked with the responsibility of constantly transporting water to the vulnerable communities and those under rations, such as St. Peter’s and Cayon.

“As a result of the drought, what we have found is that we would have had to make a lot of trips for water,” Williams noted. “We had to take water to residents in Monkey Hill, Cayon, those were two of the more popular areas where we brought water on a regular basis.”

This rapid and sudden increase in the amount of trips needed and the lack of water to provide, is a whole new ballgame for the SKN fire service and begs the question of the capacity to adequately address the situation. 

The balancing act with limited resources

With an increased service operation, the fire service is now being forced to balance between fire fighting and providing water to affected communities. In doing this, it leaves some areas susceptible to fire challenges, with resources stretched thin. 

But Williams says contingency plans have been implemented so that those areas are not left unattended. 

What if there is a fire when a truck stationed in an area is out providing service? According to the fire chief, once a truck stationed in an area is on call the station in the neighbouring district is put on alert and that is then replicated in all other locations.

However, priority is given to tackling any fire calls that arise, ensuring that buildings and lives are safe.

“It is more of a collaborative operation between the fire stations,” Williams said, adding that they will not leave a district uncovered. “Yes, there is a concern that things could always pop up…there are always issues outside of just delivering water that we have to deal with.” 

Drought and its impact on the fire service

The biggest challenge for fire officials is the drought conditions and its rationing. Like households, the fire service is also affected by the restrictions. Officials at the Water Department set water rationing from 8:00 p.m. to 5:00 a.m., and from 8:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. in some instances.

That period is also affecting the water supply to the fire hydrants and the services that they provide. 

“When we have fire calls we cannot access those hydrants because they are cut off, the water is cut off. What will have to happen is that we will have to use more of our resources,” the fire chef told Climate Tracker.

A positive for the fire service is that they have not had to deal with the challenges associated with bushfires (wildfires) this time around during the hottest months. According to the fire chief, a decrease in those fires were attributed to the dry wildlands being cut and kept low, deterring it from being a fuel for fires. 

Unlike some of the other sectors, the fire officers have been the ones who are on the frontlines tackling fires and other challenges associated with the fire and the impacts of climate change. 

They are defined as first responders when natural disasters strike SKN, and it is for that reason they are often facing the brunt of the strain. To make their work easier, the government has been purchasing water from a private entity to supplement, but in the meantime they have the task to funnel water throughout the island.

But it does not remove the challenge associated with climate change and the continued pressure.

In a comment directed to the developed nations, Williams emphasised that those leaders and profit makers must take some time to understand the long lasting impact of their decisions on the lives and livelihood of those people in SIDS who contribute little to greenhouse gas emission.

“We are basically now feeling the after effects of this pollution. I would say that this might be benefiting you financially but it is costing us financially, because we have to put things in place and buy the equipment in some instances to deal with the climate change,” Williams said.

He said it is also costing consumers because they will have to purchase and install air conditioning units, and fans. They have to cover that cost, plus the electric bills, and in other cases people have been using them consistently, and that too can lead to fires.

Meanwhile, the fire chief noted that some of the equipment and protective gear that they utilise during operation is adaptive to the climate, but they often ensure that all of their officers have adequate fluid intake while in the field battling the blazes.

Climate justice for fire services involves recognising and addressing the disproportionate impacts of climate change on vulnerable communities, while also ensuring that firefighting services are equipped to handle the escalating challenges posed by climate-related disasters. 

This approach emphasises the fair treatment of all communities, especially those most affected by climate change-induced events such as wildfires, hurricanes, and rising sea levels. It calls for adequate resources, training, and support for fire services in regions like the Caribbean, where the frequency and intensity of such disasters have been increasing. 

By integrating climate justice principles into firefighting efforts, societies can work towards not only mitigating the effects of climate change but also fostering resilience, ensuring equitable protection, and building sustainable, climate-resilient communities.

This story was published on Sknvibes with the support of the Caribbean Climate Justice Journalism Fellowship, which is a joint venture between Climate Tracker and Open Society Foundations.


Jermine Abel

Jermine Abel

Jermine is a Guyanese-born, St. Kitts-Nevis-based journalist who has been in the business of reporting for more than 14 years. He is an independent all-round journalist who covers crime, health sports, business, and soft beat among others. He works within the multimedia landscape of the twin-island Federation, providing local, regional and international breaking news. Jermine covers everything under the sun, even if it takes him on the road to uncover the truth. In between working in the newsroom and undertaking other commitments outside of the news arena, he is pursuing his Doctoral Degree in Management.

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