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Chile: fighting fires for free

How adrenaline junkies ended up staffing Chile's firehouses — for no pay.

Chile firefighters, volunteer fire departments
Soldiers stand guard as firemen fight a fire at a supermarket in Concepcion, Chile, on March 1, 2010. (Claudio Santana/AFP/Getty Images)

SANTIAGO, Chile — Before calling a plumber, the police or a veterinarian, many Chileans first dial the firefighters. They’re quick on the scene and can fix any imaginable problem, including, of course, fires.

But the last thing the “Bomberos” want is to be paid for it. So what makes them tic?

Chile’s 100 percent volunteer firefighter force, the Bomberos, is a unique mix of humanitarian adrenaline-seekers who go about their normal lives until the siren sounds. They drop whatever they’re doing — working, studying, resting, having fun — and report to their station.

“We’re addicted to adrenaline,” joked volunteer Jorge Espinoza, a 20-year old nursing student. “When we go out to emergencies, with the whistles blowing and sirens sounding, it’s a really strong adrenaline rush. We don’t even know what it’s about until the first truck takes off.”

Most of the world has mixed systems — a paid professional force in addition to volunteers. In Latin America, only Peru and Chile have fully volunteer forces. 

Not everyone can be a firefighter, said Miguel Reyes, a retired attorney who has served 40 years as a volunteer. When he was growing up near Concepcion, some 320 miles south of the capital, Reyes looked up to family members who volunteered at the local fire station near his home. He’d always wanted to serve his community, he said, and so he entered the force when he was 24.

Reyes has been president of Bomberos since 2006, and doesn’t get a penny for it.

“You have to have vocation for service and be willing to make personal, physical and economic sacrifices. You have to imagine yourself sleeping in the middle of a winter night in the rainy and cold south and hearing the sirens at 3 a.m. Not everyone is going to get up,” he said.

All of Chile’s 38,000 volunteers have regular jobs or activities or are students; 4,000 are women. There are also elderly retirees who still combat fires or help in administrative matters. Boys as young as 12 can start training in youth brigades at their local stations to become full-fledged Bomberos by 18.

In places like the desert town La Tirana in the far north, the average age of volunteers is over 50 because most young people leave town in search for work, said Reyes. In some small locations with high unemployment, the volunteer force is made up mainly of women, because the men have had to migrate for jobs elsewhere.

When they’re called to an emergency, volunteers have to get permission from their bosses on a case-by-case basis. “We don’t want a blanket authorization for our volunteers in their jobs because that could become an excuse for people to become a Bombero as a way to skip out of work,” Reyes said.

Polls over the past few years have Bomberos first on the list of institutions most trusted by Chileans, much ahead of the police and the Catholic Church. In a poll this year, it was rated by far the best institution to react to the earthquake last February (92 percent). On the other extreme was the National Emergency Bureau (10 percent). And people call them for everything, including the classic cat up a tree.