Fire chief for a year
Fire Chief Washington Espinoza talks about the challenges of running a fire department in a southern Peruvian city of 250,000 with almost no money
This interview was conducted in Chincha Alta, Peru during the International Fire Relief Mission’s January trip. Rick Markley volunteers his time with IFRM. Special thanks goes to John Flores who served as the interpreter for this interview.
Chincha Alta is a bustling, impoverished Peruvian city with narrow streets near the Pacific coastline some 125 miles south of Lima. In 2007, Chincha Alta was the epicenter of an 8.0 magnitude earthquake that damaged much of its infrastructure. Parts of the city are still damaged.
The city has 11 districts with 250,000 residents all protected by 37 volunteer firefighters who run about 1,200 all-hazard calls per year out of one, two-bay station. The department has about five sets of turnout gear, two sets of SCBA — both from the 1990s — a 1980s’ era ambulance donated from Florida, a leaky small engine with rusted compartments and a fickle PTO, and one 14-foot extension ladder.
Fire Chief Washington Espinoza and I sat down at the fire station to discuss his department and the challenges of protecting his jurisdiction.
How is the fire department funded?
We have 37 firefighters. They are all volunteers except the drivers who are paid for eight-hour shifts. The chief’s position is unpaid.
The national government issues money once a year for the 225 fire stations in Peru. We get 200 Sol (about $70) per month to feed the crew that works night shifts. The fuel for the trucks is paid by the government. They give us 30 to 40 gallons per month.
If something on a truck breaks, it can take two months to get the parts. All of the stations have a mechanic who volunteers his time. We will use any trick to make the trucks work, because it will take forever to get parts.
It sounds like you don’t have enough money.
There’s not enough money to run the department. The money from the national government is filtered through regional and local governments before it gets to the department. To get enough money, you have to be friends with someone in the regional government. And then you might get it, you might not. The only way the government will act quickly is when the money runs out completely; then they will fix it.
It would take about 50,000 Sol ($16,667) per year to run the department as it should be. Right now, I get about 2,400 Sol ($800).
Can you turn to the community?
It is against the policy for the fire department to ask the community for money. The residents, not the firefighters, can start a committee dedicated to helping the firefighters by asking for money. We don’t have this committee, but I am trying to build one.
Are there enough volunteer firefighters?
We have enough. Every year we get 10 to 15 volunteers by advertising through the radio and TV. New recruits are given a psychological and physical test.
Once accepted, they go to a basic firefighting school for four months. After the four months, they get a final exam. Those who fail can try next year.
Fire service is not mandatory (like conscription). They volunteer because they have it in their heart to help people. Most firefighters remain active for six years. However, those who don’t show up for 90 days are terminated, unless they have a documented excuse.
How did you attract so many women firefighters?
In 1975 the law changed allowing women to become firefighters. Sometimes the women are better than the men (laughter). For medical services they give better care.
What’s the department’s level of EMS care?
We have four nurses and one doctor who volunteer. However the only one who can take care of patients in the ambulance are those trained by the fire department to be medics. Medical training takes a minimum of one year.
When did you become a firefighter?
I’ve been a firefighter for 25 years. I became interested in firefighting first because I live two blocks from the station and because I had worked for Red Cross. I was chief of medical assistance for Red Cross.
I’ve experienced three earthquakes as a firefighter in Chincha. We went to help the people as though they were our family. Sometimes a car crash could be two buses with 80 people each. These calls are difficult and it is why it helps to have firefighters with 20 or 25 years experience.
How are chiefs selected?
I have been chief three times in my career, but the period is for one year. The chief of the region appoints local chiefs to serve for one year based on his assessment of their reliability and ability to lead.
Is that a good system?
It is not a good system. You make plans for a certain amount of time and at the end of a year, the plans have to be changed because another chief comes on.
When I became chief eight months ago I met with the region chief to talk about how this company should be, how we’d train the volunteers the right way and the equipment we needed. I can’t do it in eight months.
It is hard to have leadership because the volunteers will do whatever they want.
What can you accomplish?
Since I’ve been chief, I’ve opened the doors to the community. Now we have news reporters doing stories on us. We use the media to show the public safety messages like how to evacuate.
Now that they see firefighters on TV and hear them on radio programs, there is more respect for firefighters. Before, people thought the firefighters were getting paid. I have gone to the news media to educate the public that the firefighters are not paid for the services they provide.
Now they understand that we leave our homes and our families and do not know if we are coming back. They understand that our families worry about us, but that we are trained and prepared for emergencies. We are committed in times of emergency to go into the community and save their lives, no matter what.
Since I’ve been chief, we’ve had three major fires. On one, the fire truck was working for seven hours.
[Laughs] The community now realizes that we don’t have any equipment and keep asking why we don’t have any. That’s why we are trying to build the committee so they can help us.
That part of the floor [a section of flooring missing concrete larger than one fire truck] is hard on the fire vehicles going up and down. We are working to get enough money to hire a company to finish the concrete flooring. We have to tell the community that we are not asking for anything, but they are helping themselves.
What is your biggest worry?
Personal protective equipment. We need to have more PPE for the firefighters. If we try to save lives, first of all we have to save our lives. With the donation [the International Fire Relief Mission sent enough gear for 250 firefighters] we feel that we will have the right equipment to fight fires.
Hazardous materials are a special concern. On the same street as the fire station are 40 companies who handle hazardous materials. But, the department runs about 1,200 calls per year with the vast majority being vehicle crashes.
Now, it is about getting fire trucks and tools. We have rescue tools, but they are old and some of them are not working. We have to use other types of equipment like carpentry tools for vehicle extrications.
You can buy a fire truck and equipment, but you can’t buy a life. As chief, that is my main concern.
How many line-of-duty deaths and injuries do you have?
We’ve had only one firefighter die in the past 15 years. We have a lot of firefighters get hurt, but not die.
Describe Chincha’s building and fire safety codes.
Since 2006, all of the buildings must have fire and smoke alarms. Since 2010 it has gotten much better because we now apply NFPA building guidelines to all buildings in Peru. I’m an inspector for civil defense for new buildings.
What will you do when you are not chief?
When my time is done, I will serve as a firefighter, not an officer. I will serve at least 20 hours per month until I am chief again.