Global Perspective: Volunteer Firefighting in Chile

A recent article from BBC Mundo highlighted the volunteer fire service in Chile. The article examined why the 40,000 firefighters in Chile are satisfied to do their jobs without any pay.

In just the first half of April, Chile experienced two major disasters. On April 1, an 8.2 magnitude earthquake struck northern Chile, causing damage to infrastructure as well as six deaths. Then last week a fire broke out in Valparaiso, which is possibly the largest urban fire in the country’s history. Disaster is not uncommon in the country; in 2010, another earthquake followed by a tsunami claimed more than 500 lives.

According to the article, a representative from the United Nations’ program on resilient cities suggested last week that Chile’s firefighters should be paid. The response by the Chilean fire service? No.

Chile is not alone in its reliance on volunteers. Chile is a member of the Organización de Bomberos Americanos (OBA), an association of North, Central, and South American fire service organizations. The National Volunteer Fire Council (NVFC) represents the U.S. in the OBA. According to OBA president Carlos Ferlise, there are an estimated four million volunteer firefighters across North and South America. In the U.S., volunteers make up 69% of the fire service. Many other countries around the world also rely heavily or exclusively on volunteers.

For many in the volunteer fire service, volunteering is the continuation of a long and proud tradition. Juan Enrique Julio, superintendent of the Fire Department of Santiago, stated in the article he does not think that the firefighters in Chile would do as good a job if they were paid, as people do better when they do an activity because they love it as opposed to make a living at it. The notion that volunteers are not professionals is easily dismissed – volunteer firefighters receive the professional training needed to do their jobs. As explained in the article, Chilean firefighters receive not only basic training, but also specialized training in areas such as vehicle extrication and collapsed structures. Financial consideration is also a factor. Julio commented in the article that he would rather the money go to things like training and equipment than to salaries.

All of these arguments can easily be transferred as to why volunteers are important in the fire service around the world. For instance, in the U.S. fire service, volunteers have a history that dates back to the very beginning of the nation. Volunteers are trained just like career firefighters and many receive additional specialized training in areas such as EMS or Search and Rescue to meet the ever-expanding needs of the community. Money is also a factor – volunteers save communities in the U.S. an estimated $140.7 billion a year. Many communities simply don’t have the funds or resources to support a career department.

The volunteer fire service is a critical component in protecting communities and nations around the world. These countries face many of the same situations, challenges, and opportunities. The NVFC maintains strong connections and relationships in the global fire service community as an open dialogue, networking, and the sharing of best practices and experiences are a benefit to all volunteer firefighters. 

Source: BBC Mundo