Chile: fighting fires for free

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.

“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.