Mon | Sep 25, 2017

Guard us with gears! - Lack of safety equipment leaves firefighter in US hospital with severe burns

Published:Sunday | April 17, 2016 | 4:00 AM
Jamaican firefighter Tennyson McFarlane being treated at a hospital in Miami, Florida.
Contributed Jamaican fire fighter Tennyson McFarlane practicings using his badly burnt hands.
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The brave men and women of the Jamaica Fire Brigade are being put at risk daily because of the failure of successive administrations to provide that body with the means to acquire proper safety equipment.

This year, $5.6 billion has been allocated to the Fire Brigade for recurring expenditure, slightly down from $5.7. This year's allocation includes $63 million to purchase fire-fighting equipment, including bunker gears and fire hoses, up from $21 million last year.

But still, the 1,669 men and women will have to operate without enough safety gears for all of them to have a full set.

"We don't currently have gears for all (members), but additional gears are currently being bought and other efforts are being made to supply," commissioner of the Jamaica Fire Brigade, Earl Mowatt, told The Sunday Gleaner.

"We want to have enough so that we have gears in store for replacements, and currently that is the aim of fire brigade management, and I dare say, by extension, the Government. But I know for sure that we don't have all the gears that we need," added Mowatt.

The lack of safety gears for the island's firefighters captured attention last week as news came of the recovery efforts of one of their colleagues, Tennyson McFarlane, who is in the United States receiving treatment after he suffered severe burns all over his body after his unit responded to a fire on Olympic Way on August 3, 2015.

McFarlane, who was attached to the Rollington Town Fire Station and has been a member of the Jamaica Fire Brigade for 13 years, told The Sunday Gleaner that he was never issued a full set of gears.

"At first, I was a driver, and drivers aren't issued gears," said McFarlane.

"But I came off driving in February (2015) and I should have had a bunker pants, which I wasn't issued, and as a result I received second-degree burns on my legs. I wasn't issued any gloves and as a result I received third-degree burns on the hands."

The 38-year-old said he was deep in the building carrying out cooling-down operations with two other members close to the door. According to McFarlane, one of them remarked that a cylinder was in the building and before he could react there was an explosion.

"After the explosion it was downhill from there. I received second- and third-degree burns to my hands, face and legs. I was rushed to KPH (Kingston Public Hospital) by my brother, who is also a firefighter and was on the scene," said McFarlane.

Though he had been wearing a jacket and a helmet which had a face mask, the flame also rose and went under the helmet, resulting in him suffering second-degree burns to his face.

SURGERIES IN JAMAICA

"I did about 10 surgeries in Jamaica, and after doing them the surgeon's final decision was to remove both pinky fingers," said McFarlane.

"They were not responding to the surgery he was giving. He did a skin graft and as soon as he was through they contracted again."

It was then that the Fire Brigade decided to send him to the Jackson Memorial Hospital in Miami, where he has been since January 25 undergoing treatment. It is a decision that he is most grateful for, as he has regained the use of his fingers.

"The only thing is I have a pin in two of the fingers, but the fingers which they gave up hope on in Jamaica are functioning here," McFarlane shared.

"Of all the burnt areas, the legs have recovered the best, but you can still see discolouration of the skin, because the pants that I had on was burnt into my skin so you will see the colour of the denim.

"There are also some damaged nerves where if I stand anywhere for more than three minutes I feel severe pain in them, but once I am moving I am OK.

"The face needs corrective surgery. I have spoken to a plastic surgeon here and he has decided to do it, but he hasn't given me a date," added McFarlane.

He is now an outpatient, but is accommodated on the hospital compound by the Miami Fire Department, as he does therapy and follow-up surgeries.

He will have to return to Jamaican in June, however, as his six months in the United States will expire then, but he hopes to go back to complete his treatment, which is being funded by the Jamaica Fire Brigade.

McFarlane, who is the father of a two-year-old daughter, has not seen her for the past four and a half months. He said his family life has been significantly affected. But despite all that has happened he is desirous of returning to work.

"Once I have functioning hands my intention is to get back on the unit or back in the field, if not as a firefighter, as an operational driver or something functional," said McFarlane.

"I love my job, I love saving lives, serving my country and protecting persons. I don't see a next job that I could do in Jamaica that would give me the joy or the pleasure as the Jamaica Fire Brigade would."

While McFarlane's boss accepts that it is inevitable that some firefighters are going to get injured, he does not want it to happen because of a lack of gears.

"For as few of them as possible to suffer a similar fate as McFarlane, we need much more (gears) and we won't stop until we have that adequate amount," Mowatt said.

ryon.jones@gleanerjm.com