Author(s): Don Bliss. Published on January 3, 2017.

Viva Los Voluntarios

Helping the volunteer fire service in Latin America fulfill its lifesaving mission

I recently traveled to Argentina for the 10th conference of the Organización de Bomberos Americanos (OBA), the volunteer firefighters association of the Americas, and quickly learned that the spirit of the volunteer fire service is alive and well in Latin America. The commitment and enthusiasm of the 1,000 men and women who participated in the conference were inspiring, despite the challenges many of them face in their home countries.

In a relatively short period, OBA has become a go-to resource for volunteer departments looking to gain proficiency on a wide range of fire and rescue topics. The organization now represents more than one million volunteer firefighters across North and South America, including those in the United States who belong to The National Volunteer Fire Council. As an associate member of OBA, NFPA has an important voice in advocating for the health and safety of volunteer firefighters across the continent, and we have been a big OBA supporter since its inception. My goal at the conference was to identify more ways for NFPA to help the Latin America fire service fulfill its lifesaving mission.

As I’ve seen around the world, volunteer firefighters are hungry for knowledge, are proud of their service, and have a “we can do anything” attitude when it comes to challenges. Latin American firefighters are no different, even in the face of daunting challenges. Many I spoke with at the conference told me they are frustrated because they don’t believe political leaders understand their needs or recognize the importance of the fire service. Too many fire departments in Latin America are severely strapped for funding that would allow them to upgrade their equipment and fire stations, and seek donations of used fire trucks and personal protective equipment from foreign fire departments. In Buenos Aires, I saw two 1970s-era U.S.-built Class A pumpers serving a volunteer station in a congested, high-risk district.

In Brazil, severe economic challenges have made it difficult to fund public safety functions managed primarily by career firefighters. Efforts are underway to establish more volunteer firefighting units to offset gaps in locations where career firefighters cannot provide sufficient coverage. Those locations include São Paulo state, where NFPA recently provided guidance on volunteer recruitment, retention, training, and oversight.

Many South American nations also have limited capabilities for collecting and analyzing the fire incident data crucial for understanding and addressing local and national fire problems. NFPA helped Argentina develop its national fire incident registry, which could serve as a model for other nations in the region.

But it’s not all doom and gloom. Firefighters also told me that the public appreciates the risks they take to make their communities safer. In most countries, the fire departments also benefit from a profound spirit of volunteerism and giving back, which makes up for some of the financial shortfalls. Chile, for instance, is the only country in the world with an entirely volunteer fire service. In Guayaquil, Ecuador’s second largest city (population 2.3 million), the fire department comprises 1,400 volunteers and only 200 career staff. Argentina has some 42,000 volunteer firefighters and 900 firefighting associations across the nation. Fire department cooperation is also a strength. The leadership of the Guayaquil Fire Department told me it is their duty to support and assist their neighboring departments, in spite of their own resource struggles.

While not every problem was solved during OBA’s conference, solutions and possible initiatives were identified. There are many ways NFPA can help with our standards, training, and technical expertise. Most important, despite the challenges, these nations are making it work with dedication and commitment.

DONALD P. BLISS is vice president of field operations for NFPA.