Guatemala's Bomberos: Doing much with little

Despite escalation of assaults, murders, and gang activity, volunteer firefighter-medics remain undeterred


By Julie Chase, MSEd FAWM FP-C

It's 0800 hours, shift change at the fire station. Coffee brews while the crew cleans vehicles, inspects equipment, and prepares for a 24-hour shift. As the morning rituals conclude, "A" Shift gathers in the kitchen for a hearty breakfast and easy conversation.

A call has come in, and the food must wait. But this is no ordinary station or crew. These are the Bomberos of Company 10 in Guatemala City, Guatemala, considered one of the most dangerous places in the world1.

Since 1996, Wilfredo Ponce has served as a career firefighter/paramedic at Company 10. Located in a "red zone" between two funeral parlors, Wilfredo's station encounters approximately 4,500 calls per year in its response area alone.

Although the Bomberos are well-respected and recognized members of the community, some personnel choose not to wander far from the protective gates of the fire house. Only last year was a decapitated torso found half a block from the station doors.

Despite the yearly escalation of assaults, murders, and gang activity, Wilfredo and his fellow Bomberos remain undeterred in their commitment to public safety and health.

Not only is Wilfredo's work environment hazardous but also his off-duty life. Wilfredo faces daily challenges in aspects considered routine by most Americans.

Waking at 0445 for his work commute, he must take public transportation fraught with perBus riders encounter daily acts of violence from gang members attempting to extort money from both drivers and their companies. Shootings, stabbings and robberies on public transportation are not unusual.

Wilfredo lives with his wife and children in a neighborhood located not far from one of the most notoriously violent sections of Guatemala. Although the government has instituted initiatives to quell the gang violence, males from neighborhood families gather together at night to guard their streets, homes and loved ones. Since forming these neighborhood watches, many report success in warding off intruders and deterring gang activity.

Despite these challenges, Wilfredo serves the citizens of Guatemala as both a paramedic and an EMT instructor, sharing his knowledge of patient care and his wisdom of experience with new Bombero recruits. This spirit of giving and generosity is seen throughout the fire station.

The Bomberos of Company 10 do much with little. They are often forced to reuse supplies and equipment considered disposable by U.S. standards, such as splints, cervical collars and non-rebreather and bag-valve masks.

At times, they must wait for equipment to be returned from a call before going on the next one because they have no reserves. Long spine boards are few in number, oxygen tanks deplete and remain empty, medications expire, and supplies dwindle.

Most responders pay out-of-pocket to stock medical bags, including trauma dressings and basic airway adjuncts. Consumable and durable items are in high demand, and they need oxygen delivery devices, hemorrhage control and intravenous supplies, supraglottic airways, disinfecting materials, scoop stretchers, spine boards with straps and gurneys.

Many non-narcotic medications are considered over-the-counter and can be purchased at most pharmacies without a prescription. However, cost and shelf life impact potential inventories.

To further complicate the issue, no legal regulations regarding prehospital medicine exist. Much of the infrastructure, resources and support expected by U.S. EMS systems do not exist or are in limited supply in Guatemala City.

In 2011, Wilfredo and his fellow Bomberos were highlighted in an episode of a BBC documentary series, The Toughest Place to be a... Paramedic2.

Standing outside Roosevelt Hospital, Wilfredo said, "Sometimes you expect people to thank you for what you do, maybe the families or something; but, the greatest gift you can have here, is to wake up alive the next day" (2011, BBC Two).

For more information about Bomberos Voluntarios of Company 10 and for opportunities to assist, please check out Station 10's Facebook page or contact Fire Station Director Alex Glaesel at alex.glaesel@intertek.com.

References

  1. Brice, Arthur. "Gangs, drugs fuel violence in Guatemala." http://articles.cnn.com/2011-09-09/world/guatemala.violence_1_guatemala-city-zetas-drug-trafficking?_s=PM:WORLD
  2. September 9, 2011.Jarvis, K. (Director) and S. Davies (Producer). Toughest place to be a paramedic. London, England: British Broadcasting Corporation Two. February 13, 2011.

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