Five months into my journey and I have explored three wonderfully unique countries in South America as part of the FireTreks project.
I began FireTreks to gain a greater insight into fire safety across the varied environments South America has to offer. I have already learnt far more than I expected from my time in Colombia, Ecuador and Peru.
Having met with fire brigades (including specialist teams), environmental agencies, embassies and consulates, I have been able to gain a broader understanding of not just how fire practices are carried out but also the societal, economic and political influences that play a part in the picture of fire safety. Here are some of my key findings so far:
Passion and volunteering
‘God is a firefighter and he is Peruvian’, a saying from the Peruvian brigade that sums up the attitude toward firefighters in the country. If a person volunteers for the brigade, they are passionate, they are dedicated, they are proud. They are not seeking monetary recompense but are doing it for their betterment as people and to support their society. This gives rise to a wonderful culture of enthusiasm for fire safety and a family environment which I experienced in Popayan Colombia. Fantastic projects, dedicated teams and what has been achieved in many places is pretty mind blowing considering limited funding and/or resources.
Whilst talking with Lieutenant Pastor Rivera from Victoria Fire Station in Peru, I asked what he thought would happen if firefighters were paid. He was convinced that 95% would quit.
I adored that sentiment and appreciate its concept but have found that in many instances there would be a huge benefit to having a core of permanent staff to ensure consistency, sufficient time for training and developing plans for the future. This was particularly noticeable in the Galapagos Islands in Ecuador where some volunteers had to leave the island for weeks at a time to carry out their paid jobs.
Society and regulation
My time in Medellin Colombia was eye opening in that it highlighted the need to create a culture of fire safety specific to the needs of the environment and people.
There is often a knee-jerk reaction to the application of NFPA codes in South America, but how realistic can this be for areas where the infrastructure cannot support them? This is particularly relevant to poorer areas.
Risk-based steps to improve safety in financially viable ways, at a speed appropriate for the region, appears to be the most suitable way of tackling the issues and is a concept being championed by Fire Chief Diego Moreno (Medellin, Colombia). This, aligned with education to ensure current and, more importantly, future generations are equipped to understand the concepts of fire safety, should help to create a solution that both works alongside societal norms and allows greater safety standards to be introduced.
Solutions may not always be ‘perfect’ to an international standard but applying a risk-based approach can significantly improve conditions.
There is considerable pride in the industry which can work positively by creating a passionate culture. However, in some cases this can inhibit possibilities for external support. There is a wonderful willingness to show achievements but a certain reluctance to accept the help of outside sources, as if it implies some kind of weakness.
Trying to push a collaborative agenda and show people the benefit of international lessons learnt, such as the fantastic IFE incident database, has therefore been approached with a degree of naivety on my part. The task has also been made difficult due to there being little to no official reporting of any incidents that occur.
Instead, I have unfortunately concluded that policy changes and updates to regulations will likely only materialise in response to a sizeable degree of suffering. Major fires tend to provoke public outcry and demand change to which politicians are obliged to respond – a similar story in most countries.
Politics and corruption
There are five former presidents of Peru who are alive today and one who took his own life earlier this year before being arrested. Their collective CVs are incredibly shocking. From corruption, bribery, human-rights violations, crimes against humanity, money laundering, even murder. During my time in Peru, the whole of congress was dissolved in an attempt to curb the corruption pandemic. There now seems to be an inherent fear of it occurring in any department handling money, which has had a knock-on effect to the way fire departments are run. Rotations are required every three years to ensure the risk of corruption is minimised and not just the fire chief either – we’re talking entire crews!
Jimmy McSparron of ‘Black Wolf’ special forces training explained that this can be extremely frustrating as experience and knowledge are lost and training needs to be carried out again from scratch.
In many South American regions, donations are heavily relied on, but rather than money, equipment is requested for fear the funds could be ‘incorrectly handled’.
With politicians fighting and parliaments dissolving, the people are marching in the streets – and the ability to achieve anything constructive amidst all this chaos seems to be a particularly hard task until things stabilise.
At the start of my journey I viewed everything I was learning from the eyes of a middle-class gringo and the view was clear from the additional height my soapbox was giving me. But I have been significantly humbled by learning more about the social, economic and political aspects which influence what actually gets done.
My discussions with Barry Walker, the British Honorary Consul in Cusco, Peru, gave me a new perspective into the priorities of different social classes. Our talk centred on the environment but I was later able to draw comparisons with fire safety.
Someone who is poor will prioritise:
- clothing and
They will strive for:
- decent sanitation,
- healthcare and
- basic education, i.e. at the least learning to read.
Aspirations can often be focused on day-to-day survival as opposed to the future which makes perfect sense. Of course, my main concern would be feeding myself and my family to ensure short-term survival before I am able to concern myself with the fires in the Amazon and the survival of the planet. Just as finding a roof over my head would always be prioritised before I install a smoke detector!
Crossing into middle class doesn’t necessarily equate to caring as consumption kicks in – I need a fridge, I need transport, mobile phone, perhaps a TV and a computer.
So now do I care about fire safety? Potentially, but only if I have access to decent information… and who decides what I see?
What makes people care?
Before I left for South America, I carried out research regarding fires in the region. I came across the NASA website, which provided free open satellite imagery and information regarding fires across the world. I reviewed the data, which went back to the year 2000, and remember thinking ‘wow, that’s a lot of fires!’, 2010 being a particularly intense year for South America – more so than recent years including 2019.
I talked to people about it. ‘Did you know there are hundreds of fires occurring in the Amazon rainforest right now, acre after acre burning at this very moment?’ More often than not this was met with mild interest before the subject was changed. To be honest I had no pre-conceived views on the matter. Perhaps this was a natural occurrence. Perhaps fires were needed in the region for regrowth. Or perhaps this was a significant disaster and something needed to be done! I was eager to find out more on the FireTreks journey in order to develop an informed opinion.
In August 2019, Greta Thunberg sailed across the Atlantic Ocean to New York and suddenly the media sensationally announced the news regarding the fires in the Amazon rainforest, stirring up intense upset and anger across the world, particularly towards the Brazilian farmers and politicians. Everyone was talking about it.
‘Why now?’ I asked myself. My initial reaction was to blame the media. Without activists and a sensationalist angle, this story was not considered relevant for large media outlets to report on. However, having reviewed news articles pre-2019 I found that throughout the years this story had been reported multiple times.
I won’t draw any major conclusions until I have investigated in the next portion of FireTreks.
People need access to reliable information; they need to be given time to develop their own thoughts, systems and procedures that are bespoke to their needs.
The conclusions I have taken from this knowledge so far have humbled me into realising I can’t take a singular view and impart opinions without a fuller understanding of the bigger picture.
Having empathy towards individuals from all parties is incredibly important to me moving forward, particularly now I have crossed the border into Bolivia and can begin using this new-found perspective to analyse the Amazon rainforest fires in detail. I am keen to sift through the finger pointing, villainising and hearsay to discover what exactly is going on from the most unbiased viewpoint I can give.
For more information, go to www.firetreks.com