The country’s fire chief claimed firefighters had taken no bribes for 10 years, after Interior Minister Sar Kheng on Tuesday criticized the practice of officers arriving at a fire only to negotiate a price to put it out.
Kheng, speaking in Kandal province, ordered that all municipal and provincial authorities put an end to taking such bribes.
“The trucks arrive and stop at the scene, but don’t spray. The flashing lights are on, the trucks are all over the areas still burning, but they’re negotiating the price first,” Kheng said. “You see, this means that our authorities have done wrong.”
He acknowledged that firefighters’ salaries could be low, but it did not excuse the practice, he said.
“They are victims, and their houses are burning, and [we] ask how much for us to spray the water. It is death for them. Where can they get the money since all their money is in the fire?”
However, the ministry’s fire prevention department chief Neth Vantha said there had been no extortion for the past 10 years.
“If there was such a case, it was in the past,” Vantha said. “We’ve heard rumors, but for the last 10 years, after being instructed directly by Neth Savoeun, we have seen that all our units are well-functioning,” he said, referring to the National Police chief.
Vantha asked that anyone who knows of such a case report it to his department or to municipal and provincial fire teams, who would take action.
According to the fire chief, the country has about 400 fire trucks and 1,000 firefighters. A report from his department said that the service attended 937 fires in 2020, up by 220 from the year prior. In 2020, 24 people were killed, 36 injured and 707 properties damaged, the report said.
A neighbor to a fire in Phnom Penh’s Boeng Keng Kang district on Friday, Laing Seth, said this week that he didn’t see any bribery, but the trucks seemed to run out of water and take a long time to dampen the flames.
“It was a desperate situation because the fire had already burned half the house,” Seth said.
Two people died in Friday’s fire, which destroyed a warehouse and three neighboring houses.