The culture of volunteer firefighters in Chile 

Bomberos firefighters Santiago airport 747 supertanker
Bomberos (firefighters) that were supplying water for the 747 Supertanker at the Santiago, Chile airport January 26, 2017, pause to honor a fellow firefighter who was killed while fighting a fire. Photo by Bill Gabbert.

A few days ago “cspen” contributed a comment below an article we wrote on January 27 about volunteer firefighters, Bomberos in Spanish, setting up and operating a complex high-volume system for loading 19,200 gallons of water into the SuperTanker every time it pulled in to reload. In case you missed it, here it is again.

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“The tradition of the volunteer fire fighters in Chile is a very old one. To become a volunteer firefighter there is a waiting list in every single town and city across Chile, and it often takes years to get an open slot, typically another member must sponsor the person applying. It is seen as more important and patriotic than volunteering to join the military. It is for life. Even old firefighters that are no longer able to fight fires, still show-up for training and other activities, or help with administration. Often until they die.

At the core, is a sort of belief that fighting fires and rescuing people is such an honor, and so important, that a paid, “professional” group, of fire fighters would not take it so seriously (correct or mistaken). It is not something that can be trusted to the vagaries of government ministers, budget cuts, and so on.

That said, the volunteer departments equipment is mostly provided by the government. Simply the firefighters receive donations in yearly fund raising drives, that they divided between them and is viewed as a thank you for their service through-out the year.

They do receive professional level training. Experts from the around the World are brought in to for training. Firefighters join specialized brigades such as dealing with chemical hazards, high-rise rescues, and so on.

This is not just a bunch of guys standing on the street corner they pick-up, and hand them a garden hose.”

Author: Bill Gabbert

After working full time in wildland fire for 33 years, he continues to learn, and strives to be a Student of Fire. Google+

3 thoughts on “The culture of volunteer firefighters in Chile ”

  1. ha, ha, I originally wrote that. Thanks. I think it is important for the World to understand what the Chilean firefighters are all about.

    I might add to that, and provide some clarification.

    The forestry firefighters, that number about 4,000, are a paid professional firefighting group. They work for a public / private funded organization. There is a current proposal to absorbed them in to a formal forestry ministry, that will in the future be responsible for fighting forest fires and management of forest.

    However, in this situation, they are obviously overwhelmed. So, thousands of volunteer firefighters I described in the original post, that are based in the towns and cities, are on the front lines against this fire. Most do not receive training specifically in fighting forest fires as far as I know, but just the nature of being a fire fighter in a rural area tends to provide plenty of opportunity to gain experience.

    Another note about the organization of the fire fighters. The chief of each fire house, is typically a paid, full time employee.

    The whole issue with funding in Chile, really comes down to the method. Rather than paying firefighters through local property tax, firefighters are paid directly through community donations.

    Now that sort of sounds like they get very little pay for their work, but it should be understood that in the culture of Chile, when the firefighters ask for donation, the only acceptable answer for not donating is, “I already donated”.

    If you walk by a firefighter when their doing their yearly donation drives, and don’t donate, you will get some very dirty looks from everyone on the street.

    The firefighters also hold yearly raffles. Local car dealerships typically donate a new car. The fire fighters and their family then sell tickets to the community for about $2-3 U.S. each to raise money. I have a girl that works me, that her father has been a firefighter for 30+ years. Each year she helps her father sell his raffle tickets. She brings them in to the office. I ask her how many tickets she has left, and then I buy the rest of the book. For around $100 a year or so, I consider it very cheap fire insurance, and I know exactly where the money is going.

    So, they do have to raise money from the community, but across Chile the community is always ready to help the firefighters. I don’t know exact averages, but I would guess they typically raise several hundred thousand dollars a year per town.

    That said, I don’t think there is a firefighter in the World that would turn down better pay, better equipment, or more training. With or without it, they are definitively dedicated to what they do.

    As of this writing, there is now over 500,000 hectares burned or burning (1.2 million+ acres). There is approximately 11 deaths so far. The majority of the deaths are firefighters and two police officers (their truck high-centered on a fallen tree, and they could not escape the flames). All appear to have died helping to evacuate civilians, stayed too long, and were trapped. I believe so far we have around 1 civilian death. That is dedication to the job.

  2. Hey guys! As a Chilean fireman I would like to say thank you for publishing this article!
    Stay safe out there

  3. I like the idea of community support and hope it continues in the future. Are smoke detectors required in single and multi-family dwellings?

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