Chile's firefighters in spotlight after Valparaiso blaze

By Gideon Long
BBC News, Santiago

  • Published
Firefighter work to put out a fire in Valparaiso city, northwest of Santiago on 13 April, 2014Image source, Reuters

This month's devastating fire in the Chilean city of Valparaiso not only killed 15 people and destroyed nearly 3,000 homes, it also ignited a debate over the future of the country's fire service, which has a long, proud tradition of voluntary service.

There are around 40,000 firefighters in Chile and they all work for free. The only people in the service who are paid are the drivers, messengers and secretaries who work in the fire stations.

When a fire breaks out, when there is a car crash or when an earthquake strikes, volunteers leave their day jobs as lawyers, shopkeepers and bankers and head to their stations to help out. Many work night shifts and weekends for free.

Indeed, Chilean firefighters have to pay to be part of the force. They all make monthly contributions to their stations.

"This is the only institution in Chile in which you have to pay to serve," says Miguel Reyes, president of the Junta de Bomberos, the national firefighters' association.

'No pay please'

This voluntary tradition dates back to the foundation of the service in the mid-19th Century, and most Chilean firefighters would not have it any other way.

Image source, Gideon Long
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Chile's voluntary fire service dates back to the 19th Century
Image source, Gideon Long
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The service's proud heritage is on display at the HQ of the firefighters' association in Santiago

"We don't want to be paid," says Juan Enrique Julio, head of the Santiago fire service.

"If people want to give us money, that's fine, but it should be used to modernise our equipment, buy new fire engines, buy protective clothing and for training, not for salaries."

That sentiment is echoed across the force.

"I like the fact the service is voluntary," said former fireman Miguel Soffia, who describes it as "the best NGO in Chile".

Mr Soffia comes from a family of firemen. His grandfather and uncles were part of the force and he was registered as a fireman on the day he was born.

"There's a tradition among the families of firemen that when you're born, someone in the force agrees to be your godfather," Mr Soffia said. "When you turn 18, they give you your first helmet or uniform to welcome you into the force."

Fit for purpose?

Despite this almost cultish devotion to the cause, the Chilean fire service has come in for criticism in the light of the Valparaiso blaze, one of the worst in the city's history.

Image source, AFP
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The massive blaze which engulfed parts of Valparaiso was a challenge for Chile's firefighters
Image source, Reuters
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Firefighters from all over Chile came to Valparaiso to help, but it took days to get the fire under control
Image source, Reuters
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Some hotspots were re-ignited by strong winds from the hills, further complicating firefighters' work

Some observers say that while the force's altruistic ethos is admirable, it is outdated. They say the fire service needs modernising and should no longer depend solely on volunteers.

Many feel that a country prone to forest fires, volcanic eruptions and earthquakes needs a better funded, better organised service for the 21st Century.

Chile is not the only country to use volunteer firefighters. The Australians, Germans and French do the same, and in the United States there are over a million volunteer firefighters.

But in those countries the volunteers support a core of full-time professional firefighters who have no other work commitments, whereas in Chile all firefighters are volunteers.

Mr Julio defends the Chilean system, saying its firefighters are as well trained and professional as any in the world.

"People make the mistake of thinking that 'volunteer' means 'amateur'," he says. "The doctors who work for Medecins Sans Frontieres are also volunteers but that doesn't mean they're not professional doctors.

"Lots of professional fire services -- not just in South America but across the world -- are much less professional than ours.

"Their firemen are less willing to risk their lives than ours. They go on strike and if their cities burn, they burn. We never go on strike."

Bingo and raffles

Much of the current debate over the future of the fire service is about money.

Image source, Reuters
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Critics say a modern fire service needs more investment

Mr Reyes estimates that 55% of funding for the fire service comes from central government, while the rest comes from local government, donations and fundraising activities like bingo and raffles.

Rattling the can

It is quite common in Chile to see firefighters on the streets with collection jars, asking for money to fund their operations.

Image source, Gideon Long
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Mr Reyes says donations are a key part of the fire service's finances

Many say that is demeaning, and that the state should give firefighters more money.

Mr Julio says that in Santiago, 40% of funding comes from public donations. Some 60,000 people have direct debits and standing orders with the city's fire service.

Critics of the service also claim that its non-professional status means it is not transparent.

Just days after the Valparaiso blaze, Chile's leading investigative journalism website published an article on what it described as "the negligence and corruption that allowed Valparaiso to burn".

It alleged that over $700,000 (£415,000) that should have been used to prevent fires in the city had gone missing.

The Valparaiso blaze, which broke out on 12 April, was clearly a severe test for Chile's firefighters. Some 1,500 volunteers were called to tackle it and at times they were overwhelmed.

Image source, AP
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Some of the crews were overwhelmed by the sheer magnitude of the Valparaiso fire

The flames have now been extinguished and rebuilding work on the city has started.

But the arguments over the future of the Chilean fire service are likely to smoulder on for some time yet.