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Chile: fighting fires for free

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

“We get called to help with gas leaks at home, fallen trees, freeing people trapped in elevators, women going into labor and breaking into apartments when the owners have left their keys inside. We get anywhere in four minutes, faster than the police, the ambulance or the locksmith, and we don’t charge,” said Daniel Vergara, a transportation businessman who is commander of the Nunoa Corps that covers five municipalities in Santiago.

The first volunteer firefighter corps in Chile was created in 1851 in the port city of Valparaiso, then Chile’s commercial hub, and was made up of mainly wealthy European immigrants who were making their fortunes in commerce, mining and banking. These liberal-minded immigrants provided funds, modern equipment and know-how from their countries of origin, but groups of “assistants” were the ones actually putting out the fires.

Resources were not a problem, but in time, the Bomberos corps multiplied throughout the country and their ranks swelled with working and middle-class volunteers who could not pay for the costly equipment, gear and operations.

In the mid-20th century, the state began including funds for Bomberos in the yearly budget, allocating money according to each station’s needs — covering anywhere between 35 percent and 80 percent of their operations. Other sources of financing come from community donations and monthly fees paid by the volunteers themselves — anywhere from $6 to $60. These volunteers sometimes have to buy their own uniforms.

None of the money is used for salaries. Being paid would ruin the mystique.

“When you work for money you just do your job and wait to be paid, without a real interest in providing a good service. Since we work without salary or schedules, we always do our best with the highest ideals. We lose friends, parties, time with our families and rest, but no one is forcing us. It is other people’s suffering that moves us,” said Espinoza.

The funds are never enough and this means that the Bomberos are constantly campaigning with fundraising events, bingos, parties and raffles. Volunteers are frequently asking for donations at stoplights, supermarkets, events, highways or door to door. But do Chileans dig into their pockets for their beloved Bomberos?

“People hold us dear to their hearts, but when it comes to donating, their pockets seem to be very far from their hearts, especially in well-to-do areas. When we collect donations in wealthy neighborhoods we come away with coins. In poor neighborhoods people give us bills,” said Reyes.