Ever since 2012, when the polling unit at the University of Hong Kong started collecting data, the Fire Services Department (FSD) has always been the city’s most popular disciplined force.

Firefighters have been a regular presence on the frontlines of the months-long protest movement, dousing burning barricades, stores and Molotov cocktails. By and large, they have been treated as a neutral party and granted safe passage.

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File photo: Studio Incendo.

However, recent escalations in law enforcement tactics have forced them to search for an elusive middle ground: how to avoid the political fallout from aggressive policing, while not cutting ties with their colleagues in law enforcement?

Matters came to a head last Saturday evening, when a fireman climbed out of his vehicle in Central to confront a group of police officers in full riot gear.

“Chief, you fucking shot my fire engine, what the hell?” he said. “I don’t have a [gas mask], look at my face.”

An officer replied that his team needed to disperse protesters, and did not spot the fire engine when tear gas was fired.

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Moments later, another officer accused the fireman of using foul language, and after a brief scuffle shoved him against a nearby wall. Police also pushed away two journalists filming the incident and doused one with pepper spray.

According to a joint statement issued by the police and FSD some seven hours later, the whole incident was a “misunderstanding.” The fire engine was “accidentally hit” by a tear gas round, which led to the gas spreading through the cabin.

“[The fireman] subsequently got off the fire truck to express his dissatisfaction to police officers… There was misunderstanding in the verbal communication between both sides. The matter was tackled and resolved at the scene after further communication,” the joint statement read.

While the statement ended with both sides expressing “mutual understanding and respect,” it highlights the ongoing tensions between different branches of Hong Kong’s disciplined services.

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Photo: May James/HKFP.

It was not the first time that firefighters were caught in the crossfire: on the same day, a video circulated online which showed a fireman doubled over as police fired tear gas nearby. It was revealed that each fire engine only carries two or three gas masks, which would not be enough for a typical crew of five to six.

‘Firefighters, resist’

Ripples of discontent within the FSD highlight a growing rift in Hong Kong’s civil service, with some protesters claiming the “heroic” firefighters as part of their movement. For many, there was no contradiction between supporting firefighters and the use of “fire magic” – the protesters’ euphemism for arson and throwing Molotov cocktails.

Explainer: ‘Renovation’, ‘decoration’ and ‘fire magic’ – the businesses targeted by Hong Kong’s hit-and-run protesters

An activist started an email campaign to government departments in praise of the firefighters, which read: “FSD personnel have been targeted with tear gas and malicious pushing, this type of poor working environment is most unreasonable. We hope that FSD can provide fair treatment to those affected frontline firemen, and we highly commend the efforts of each firefighter.”

The organiser also created a mural depicting a firefighter, which appeared outside the Kwai Chung Fire Station overnight.

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A poster praising firefighters: ‘The tyranny has their evil henchmen, I have the heroic firefighters.’ Photo: Childe Abaddon.

The FSD said last Sunday that the fireman who swore at police for hitting his truck was not arrested, demoted or penalised. FSD also denied rumours that the fireman was “summoned before the top brass for [a] dressing down” or that his career promotion was put on hold.

Just two days after the incident, some black-clad protesters developed a new chant; when they walked past an idle fire engine in Hung Hom they shouted, “Firefighters, resist!”

At an earlier protest on October 31, police arrested an off-duty firefighter near the Prince Edward MTR station for assaulting police, unlawful assembly, possession of an offensive weapon and contravening the ban against face covering.

The FSD has maintained that it is politically neutral, though that did not stop some individual firefighters from breaking ranks. Since June, the FSD has looked into around 90 of its employees for speech posted online – with the possibility of disciplinary measures if they were found to be in breach of protocol.

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In early October, after a 14-year-old student protester was shot with live ammunition, over 200 firefighters signed an anonymous petition to condemn their boss for “blindly supporting” the police.

“We have witnessed many times that police officers obstruct, mislead or even insult FSD personnel who were conducting rescue operations… If anyone needs medical services, FSD personnel have a legal responsibility to ensure the injured person receives timely and suitable care and hospitalisation,” the statement read.

It urged the police to follow the law, so that the disciplined forces can work together to serve Hong Kong.

Despite the pro-democracy sentiment among frontline firemen, some of FSD’s top brass remain staunch supporters of the Carrie Lam administration. During a lecture at the Fire and Ambulance Services Academy, Deputy Director of Fire Services Joseph Leung called protesters who broke the law “cockroaches” – echoing language coming from the police union.

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Photo: May James/HKFP.

With the pro-democracy movement continuing into its sixth month, FSD’s dilemma represents a broader crisis of public credibility for Hong Kong’s civil service, as “neutrality” amid the protests becomes more difficult by the day.

According to HKU polling, the police force had ranked low in public satisfaction even before the protests began – the question now is whether civil servants’ reputation may end up as collateral damage.

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Holmes Chan is a reporter at Hong Kong Free Press. He covers local news with a focus on law, politics, and social movements. He studied law and literature at the University of Hong Kong.