How the Greek fire service improved its record

«We dealt with 73 percent of the fires that broke out within the first three hours. We went down from 45,200 hectares of destroyed land last year, to 12,000 hectares this year.» Observing the fire service’s record this year, its chief, Stelios Stefanidis, feels vindicated. He also points a finger at all those who, following the fire that ravaged Eastern Attica last year, tried to blame him for the major disaster. «My answer to them came a year later,» noted Stefanidis in an interview with Kathimerini. He also had his say regarding the Greek forest service and local government’s inactivity in the area of prevention. In the case of the catastrophic fire in Preveli on Crete, Stefanidis noted, «Since we enjoy palm trees so much, we ought to define the forest’s boundaries, clean it up, guard it and not leave it to its own devices for it to burn down, as it turned out.» Finally, Stefanidis divulged that, beginning next year, all fire department vehicles will be equipped with GPS devices to improve the coordination of extinguishing operations. He also noted that 20 percent of the department’s fleet was purchased in the last five years. In recent years, around this time of year, we go in search of the next fire service chief, along with answers as to what went wrong in the case of that one big disaster. Things seem to be different this year. This year we did what we had to do. There was no room for more disasters. Luck had something to do with it as well. For instance, had a helicopter experienced some kind of mechanic failure while a fire took on a greater dimension, responsibility would have fallen onto the chief. Following the fire in northeastern Attica last year, the ministry’s leadership at the time suggested that you carried a great deal of responsibility for what happened. My answer to them came a year later. I proved myself this year. The leadership back then had chosen not to put me to use. That says a lot. The department’s overall image has changed. What happened? For starters, we trained our foot patrols. We dispelled the myth that fires are put out by planes. Every day, when the planes took off and reported back to us that things were not going well, we sent out EMAK workers and foot patrol units. By 2 to 3 a.m. they had managed to control the situation. A pivotal role was also played through the merger of the fire service’s operations center with that of the Civil Protection Authority, the fire service’s motorcycle patrols and the volunteers. What about prevention? The necessary action was not taken in this field. The forest service and local authorities are protesting that funding is insufficient. Meanwhile, a number of services and municipalities didn’t display any kind of interest whatsoever. In Preveli, for instance, we should have defined the boundaries of the forest and cleaned it up. What happened was to be expected. Could improvements in the fire service’s record this summer be partly due to better weather conditions? There were periods of very high temperatures and strong winds. We faced days with high winds, which we hadn’t come across in the last decade. In Karystos [on Evia], for instance, planes were unable to drop water this year. Last year, when disaster struck, planes flew normally. The same happened with the fires in southern Crete. On the day of the fire wind speeds reached 11 Beaufort. What kind of changes are you planning in the department’s operations in the near future? We are proceeding with the implementation of Kallikratis [government reforms to redraw the boundaries of municipal and prefectural authorities]. We are abolishing units that do not deal with incidents in order to reinforce our central divisions. By next summer, we will be covering areas via patrols. As for this summer’s most ferocious fires, those responsible were caught and taken into custody.

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