The Smoke Detector

Retired Alberta firefighter Victor Fernandez collects donated equipment for citizen brigades in developing countries.

The Smoke DetectorThe fire broke out inside the central market of the city of Concepción, Chile, and quickly spread. The size of an average Canadian mall, the 102-year-old mercado is a hub for the region, where locals buy and sell everything from jeans to flat screens. Firefighters battled the flames for three hours, but with the blaze strong­est at the top of the structure, they made little headway. What the brig­ade desperately needed was a truck with a ladder and telescopic hose.

Central dispatch put out a call for additional units. Lirquén, a small town 17 kilometres away, responded: they had a ladder truck, nicknamed Margarita. As soon as they were given the go-ahead, Lirquén Station 3 raced to the burning market. The team put the hose into operation, executing an “aerial attack” and isolating the fire in one corner of the building. In 40 minutes, they brought the blaze under control. “Margarita made the difference,” says Lirquén fire chief Jorge Isaias Nova Pinto, on duty that April night two years ago. “Without her, the livelihoods of hundreds of families would have been wiped out.”

The actions of tiny Station 3 were made possible by a bigger intervention a few months earlier, when the Canadian Aid for Fire Services Abroad (CAFSA) arranged to have the truck-donated by a fire hall in Bonnyville, Alta.-shipped some 10,000 kilometres to the Lirquén squad. Most surprising of all is that CAFSA is essentially the work of one man, retired firefighter Victor Fernandez.

Fernandez, 59, waves a hand across the empty 370-square-metre warehouse in St. Albert, Alta. “This was full of equipment six months ago,” Fernandez says. “We sent it all off to Paraguay in the fall.” Hundreds of helmets, jackets, masks, boots, gloves and pants-worth well over $200,000, and all of it gathered by fire departments across the province during spring cleanup. “Because of our safety standards, most gear is usually thrown out. After five years, $1,000 jackets are replaced, even if they’re basically unused,” says Fernandez, who, with his 13 volunteers, drives around to retrieve the discards.

Fernandez recalls his teenage days as a so-called bombero (firefighter) in his hometown of Santiago, Chile. “We wore jeans and running shoes,” he says. “A wet towel over our faces was all we had to keep the smoke out.” It’s better now, but not by much. Most South American fire departments are staffed by volunteers who buy their own fire-resistant gear and pay dues to maintain their stations.

Fernandez first travelled to Banff, Alta., in the late ’70s, fell in love with the province and decided to move there, eventually signing up with the St. Albert Fire Services. The idea for CAFSA came in the mid-’90s at a firefighter safety seminar, where Fernandez learned that firefighters who lack proper equipment suffer a staggeringly high incidence of various cancers. “All those first responders in developing countries were basically volunteering to get cancer,” he says.

In the last 15 years, CAFSA has transferred some 34 tons of gear and 15 trucks to Colombia, Guatemala, Chile and Paraguay with an estimated value of $6 million. Martin Cucalon says that CAFSA has helped equip 250 firefighters in his unit in Ecuador. Now, for the first time in the unit’s 179 years, many of the crew have respiratory masks that allow them to enter burning buildings. Cucalon calls Fernandez’s work exceptional. “He offers help without expecting anything in return.”

Fernandez says his wife and teenage daughter and son often wonder how he musters the energy to keep CAFSA going. But as impressive as the big moments are, it’s the little ones that give him heart. “People still drive out to Lirquén to see Margarita,” he says. “They stop. They take pictures. They say, ‘There’s the truck that saved our market, our lives and our businesses.'”

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