Senate rejects BFP modernization bicam report

Senators are up in arms after the bicameral conference committee on the bill modernizing the Bureau of Fire Protection (BFP) inserted a provision allowing firefighters to carry guns – a proposal that the Senate had earlier rejected. 

A total of 11 senators out of the 22 physically and virtually present during the session on Thursday, June 3, voted to ratify the bicam report on the BFP modernization bill that Senator Ronald dela Rosa was sponsoring. But an "absolute majority" of 12 votes was needed for the bicam report to be ratified.

It was a close vote, since eight other senators did not want to ratify the bicam report, while three abstained. Those who abstained were Senate President Vicente Sotto III, Senate Majority Leader Juan Miguel Zubiri, and Senator Pia Cayetano.

(Editor's Note: An earlier version of this story interchanged the figures on how senators voted on the bicam report ratification. This has been corrected.)

Ratifying bicam reports should have been a done deal, but Senate Minority Leader Frank Drilon spotted the controversial insertion in the document and confronted Dela Rosa about it. 

Drilon said it was “dangerous” for the Senate contingent to the bicam to go against the decision of their colleagues. 

He recalled that last March 3, the issue of allowing firefighters to carry guns was so contentious that senators decided to put up the proposed amendment to a vote. A total of 13 senators already rejected it then

“It is very dangerous, Mr. President, if we allow our Senate contingent to go against the policy adopted by the Senate, as shown by the adoption of the vote,” said Drilon.

“With all due respect to the good chairman, the Senate contingent disregarded this mandate and this judgement and substituted their own judgement, which is totally contrary to the Senate position,” he added.

The BFP modernization bill was a priority measure of President Rodrigo Duterte, who had long wanted firefighters to be allowed to carry guns. 

A majority of the bicam members from the Senate are known Duterte allies: senators Dela Rosa, Francis Tolentino, Bong Go, and Win Gatchalian. 

Minority senator Risa Hontiveros is also a bicam member, but she said the rest of her colleagues did not consult her about the insertion. 

During the session, Senator Richard Gordon said firefighters should not be allowed to carry firearms since maintaining peace and order is the job of the Philippine National Police (PNP).

“Mr. President, I never see a fireman during 9/11 brandish a firearm. Always, that is the job of the PNP. And if I were a member of the PNP, I would take umbrage because that shows that the PNP is unable to conduct order amid a chaotic fire, Mr. President,” said Gordon.

Senator Pia Cayetano also has the same sentiments, adding that the Senate contingent to the bicam should fight for what the chamber has decided.

“I was among those who voted against this provision [last March] simply because I’m against more firearms in the country. I’m against another agency carrying firearms,” she said. 

How did the insertion came to light?

Dela Rosa was already sponsoring the bicam report in the plenary so the Senate could ratify it – the last step for the BFP modernization bill before it officially hurdles the 18th Congress. 

The House already ratified the bicam report on Monday, June 1, then adjourned session sine die a day after. 

But Drilon opposed Dela Rosa’s motion to ratify the report, pointing out the provision that would allow the BFP’s security and protection units to carry “equipment” that aims “to protect firefighters performing their mandate.”

When Drilon asked Dela Rosa point-blank if this meant the BFP would be allowed to buy guns, Dela Rosa said yes. 

“Yes, Mr. President, in the future. But right now, they are not contemplating, and even in this bill, they’re not requesting for funds for purchase of firearms, Mr. President. Maybe after COVID-19 if funds will allow [it],” said Dela Rosa. 

Perhaps already anticipating Drilon’s opposition to the insertion, Dela Rosa said only 2,282 out the total 30,290 BFP personnel would be allowed to carry short firearms to protect their colleagues.

"Mr. President, that's the usual complaint of our firefighters, that during fire incidents, there are people who try to take away their water hoses. Sometimes, there are firefighters who get stabbed because there are people who want their houses to be saved from the fire first," said Dela Rosa in Filipino.

Dela Rosa said the bicam members agreed to compromise with their counterparts in the House who had supposedly insisted to authorize even just portion of the BFP to carry guns. 

But Drilon argued the Senate contingent to the bicam should not have allowed this to happen since the chamber actually voted against this provision already.

“The mandate of the Senate contingent was not to allow any provision which can be interpreted as an authority to arm a Bureau of Fire personnel,” said the Senate Minority Leader.

With the Senate refusing to ratify the bicam report, the document would have to be returned to the committee. The Senate plans to request the House to constitute a new contingent to rectify the controversial insertion.

This means the earliest time the BFP modernization bill can hurdle Congress will be in late July or when the 18th Congress reopens session after its sine die adjournment this week. – Rappler.com

Mara Cepeda

Mara Cepeda writes about politics and women’s rights for Rappler. She covers the Senate and the Office of the Vice President. Got tips? Send her an email at mara.cepeda@rappler.com or shoot her a tweet @maracepeda.

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