I had been eager to learn about every country I visited from a fire safety perspective but to be completely honest, I enjoyed myself a little too much in Argentina. A visit from a friend prompted a couple of weeks of eating all the steak and drinking all the wine followed by a further month spent hiking in the mountains of Patagonia in awe of the most picturesque scenery I’d ever laid my eyes on. The plan had been to return later after my second visit to Bolivia but I think we all know how that ended, so unfortunately we will have to skip this one for now. I’ll just leave these photos here to explain why:
Chile was next on the agenda and with a little trepidation I made my way to Santiago to meet volunteer fire fighters from various stations around the city. Santiago was in turmoil due to regular anti-government protests which had begun that October and, unlike many of the other countries I had visited, the world was watching. By that point I had become accustomed to turmoil resulting fro the political climate across Latin America so I was not going to let it affect my plans. It also meant the flights to Easter Island were going for rock bottom prices so I was able to spend a short Christmas break in a place I’d dreamed of visiting since I was a little girl.
I was staying in the Las Condes district, an affluent area which had seen little of the protests more prevalent in the downtown area. I’d made a few non-eventful journeys to visit some of the tourist hot spots and although I thoroughly liked the city, it had been ravaged by unrest. The walls bled with graffiti adorning every reachable surface, it was like walking through the pages of a very angry diary.
I was excited to be invited to the fire fighter’s parade taking place on a pleasant afternoon and made my way downtown via the metro. As I stepped off the train, I realised instantly that something was wrong as a strong, strange smell hit my nostrils. People on the platform were using scarfs or other items of clothing to cover their noses and mouths, attempting to lessen the effect of what I quickly discovered was tear gas. With eyes burning, I staggered to get back on the train but met closed doors and the sympathetic eyes of the more sensible passengers who’d remained onboard as the train sped away.
I found myself alone on the platform, frozen in my indecision as all the other passengers had walked away with purpose. I decided to climb the stairs to the main entrance to assess the situation but on hearing a commotion outside decided to turn back. A station officer began shooing me towards the door and ignored my attempted protests in broken Spanish. Instead he kept repeating the name of the adjacent station. I guess I was meant to walk there….
‘I don’t want to go out there!’ I yelped in English whilst being pushed out before the train station entrance door slammed unceremoniously behind me. The noise grew louder as I peaked my head up from the stairwell entrance at a scene of chaos before me. It was like a movie set – a Mad Max dystopian scene. Protesters wore masks as protection from the tear gas and many were brandishing paintball guns. There seemed no end to the procession so I threw my sunglasses on, covered my face with my arm and tried to walk nonchalantly to the next road, silently praying no one would notice me. A concrete block smashed to the pavement a few metres away and my heart jumped to my throat. I really was in a pickle this time.
Thoughts of nonchalance quickly evaporated as I spotted and raced towards a small alleyway, turning my back on the swarms of protesters, hoping the other side would be a little calmer. I was met with a group who were concentrating hard on shaking a lamppost down. If I hadn’t been so frightened I may have laughed at the utter ridiculousness of what they were trying to achieve. I wasn’t entirely sure how this was meant to help their cause. I couldn’t see the benefit of just smashing things up and destroying the city that they themselves lived in, but I guess I’ve never been that angry about anything before…..Well anyway, I obviously survived to tell the tale and made it to the parade – which was lovely.
I want to avoid getting too political on this article because it has driven a number of my previous blogs. But I was interested in finding out how the fire brigade was treated in such times.
I came to see Matias Infante at the ‘First’ Station in the heart of the city to talk to him about his life as a fire fighter and see the facilities.
The service is made up of volunteers and in Greater Santiago alone there are 22 stations. A number of these stations are sponsored by various countries around the world including British, German, Dutch, French and Spanish. I was glad to have this clarified since it was rather confusing seeing a British fire truck one morning and a bright Orange dutch truck speeding past later the same day.
It was good to hear that the common consensus among the general population was that fire fighters were considered heroes in Chile. As an independent entity they were detached from the stigma associated with the police and military and therefore respected for risking their lives to save others. I was told about many occasions where, even during the protests, a path had been made to allow fire trucks through to do their job. However after the university had been targeted by arsonists and the fire brigade turned up, rocks had been thrown at them to prevent the fires from being extinguished. This totally abhorrent behaviour back fired against the protesters and many people in the city were fed up with it.
Matias had followed in the footsteps of a number of his family members and was currently living at the station. The facilities really took my breath away! As well as having good quality, modern equipment and vehicles, the station had great sleeping accommodation, a games room, a pool table, a bar – even a swimming pool!
Funding was provided from 3 different sources:
- State level,
- Municipalities and
Additionally, when someone died with no claimant to their property or assets, these were also transferred to the brigade. This financial stability created a group well equipped and well trained with facilities far beyond anything I’d previously seen in South America. I was ready to sign up!
I also met with Sergio Selman who became a volunteer fire fighter 15 years ago and has a keen interest in high-rise fire safety.
He explained that the building codes focus on earthquake protection due to the seismic activity in the region. Many of the fire requirements focused on structure and compartmentalisation but Sergio admitted that systems requirements were nowhere near what they needed to be particularly in relation to sprinkler provision. The separation distance between some buildings was also an issue since developers were intent on maximising the space on their plot without considering adjacent properties. This significantly increased the risk of external fire spread.
Having this well funded brigade however meant that they were able to invest in some really cool tech to try and safeguard fire fighters in the event of a fire in the city and I wanted to find out more. Sergio showed me how a mobile application was used to inform all volunteers about current incidents in the city. The app was also used to call for additional help when needed. I had previously been met with Alexander Ratinoff who worked alongside his father at Improfor, a company specialising in the import and export of fire safety equipment in Chile.
He told me about some of the current technology being used by the brigade some of which I had been shown at the stations:
- The easy 4000 large flow fan from LEADER used for smoke removal and air cooling in large spaces.
- Bounce – a 360° camera ball which pairs with a smartphone application and is used during structural collapses to look for survivors who may be trapped in small, difficult to reach places.
- Wireless lasers which monitor unstable structures to provide warning of potential collapse.
- Thermal Imagery devices
- TECDRON – an adaptable fire fighting and rescue robot
- 3D tracking systems that visualises locations of fire fighters
Santiago felt like the polar opposite of many places I’d seen on this journey. Whilst visiting Matias at the station it was actually quite wonderful to see how happy the team was as they geared up for their Christmas party. I once again found myself thinking about the guys I’d met in Bolivia. The stark contrast highlighted how critically important funding is, and the difference it makes to the lives and mental health of the men and women risking their lives on a daily basis.