One World 2013 – Looking Back

Most of us have flown home now (I will be here until March 6th for some surfing). When I look back to the day we arrived at the beach house in La Libertad, I have to say that I was a bit nervous of what was to come. My anxiety quickly dissipated when I realized that we had an excellent team of scholars that was eager and ready to take on the adventure and challenges ahead. Throughout our journey, we encountered many challenges and at the end of the day I am proud of how our team came together to ensure a successful deployment.
There are many memories that stand out for me, and many of them relate to the people that we met in the country. Whether it was our driver Francisco and his appreciative and gracious nature, or the bomberos and how they welcomed us to every fire hall with open arms, the people here have demonstrated a tremendous level of kindness.
In our travels throughout the country, I witnessed a breathtaking and vibrant landscape full of volcanoes, lakes, and palm trees. While sitting in the back of the bomberos pickup truck, we were often greeted with smiles and waves by curious pedestrians. It was strange driving by so many poverty stricken communities – especially knowing how much easier it is to make a living in Canada. One thing I noticed is that everyone in general seems content with what they have. Even if someone only has a few pairs of clothes, Salvadoreans in general are always very well dressed, groomed, and proud.
Brian (our team leader) worked hard to prepare us for life in the fire hall by mirroring the experience of a fire hall at the beach house. Whether it was the food preparation and planning, etiquette tips, or early morning fitness sessions, our team adapted well and learned a great deal from this experience. When the rest of the team of firefighters from Canada arrived and when we moved to San Salvador, the focus of the trip changed. We had the opportunity to teach a full day of basic skills to the bomberos, and throughout the week we worked with extremely talented firefighters from our home country.  After the week of classes, the bomberos were put to the test with live fire scenarios. We had the opportunity to lead the attack teams into the fire, and we also acted as the technicians for the live fires. After 24 days in the country, I feel very confident with how my skills have developed and improved, and I look forward to using what I’ve learned to achieve employment as a career firefighter in the Lower Mainland.
This has been the experience of a lifetime, and I look forward to returning home with a new outlook. I have a new appreciation for life, and I’ve realized that when we encounter difficulties, there are people in this world who have it so much harder. No matter how difficult life can be, people here keep living their lives while trying to make them better.

GroupPhoto Lake Group2


Final Days in El Salvador

Our 3-week scholarship trip ended with live fire training the bomberos. We built up to this final training from firefighter basics, to rescues, to fire suppression. We only had time to go through two scenarios, but the bomberos were happy that they went smoothly. After every scenario the bomberos were given feedback from each instructor on what went well and what they needed improvements on. After the live fire training we rushed back to our hotels to clean up and change, and then went back to the Cuartel to celebrate the graduation of the bomberos.  We gave them a lot of gifts: hats, pins, stickers, and patches from the various Lower Mainland fire departments.  After giving the gifts and certificates out to the graduates, we too received certificates of appreciation from the Cuerpo de Bomberos de El Salvador.  One of the bomberos, Juan, was dressed up in white pants, red shirt and a black blazer sang sing five songs for everyone.  Two of the songs were dedicated to our very own Ruth and Liz.  After the ceremony ended we packed our bags at the Cuartel with coffee that we are going to bring back home.

The next day we left the hotel at 8pm to go to Jeffrey Moore’s family house, which is at a lake in a crater of an inactive volcano.  The lake is called Lake Coatepeque.  At the lake, Walter (one of our hosts) taught a few of us how to free-dive and we had a special lunch prepared by hired professional chefs.  It was a good day for all of us to relax and unwind.  At the end of the day we gathered together a tip for our driver, Francisco, and said our ‘Thank You’s to him.

Brian and Kim left for the beach house that we arrived at just 2 weeks ago, and we headed for our hotel. One of the girls who work at the Cuartel told us that she would show us around on our last day.  She brought us to a night market that had live music, tables and chairs set up on the streets and live performances from the locals on the street.  It was a very lively night full of music, food and vendors.

The next morning, we left for the airport at 4:45 am.  The ride was dark; the sun hadn’t come up yet and there weren’t any other cars in the street. It was cold and silent.  On the ride, I thought about all the things that I have learned in the 3 weeks in El Salvador.  I thought about how lucky I am to be on this trip and how I might return on another rewarding trip like this in the future.  This has been such an amazing experience.  Thank you!


SCBA LiveFire Group3


Working with instructors – Teaching & Learning

Today we assisted the instructors again, but we followed the group we were with before to build better relationships with the bomberos.  I am working with Group 2 and they’re great.  They are very enthusiastic people who have the same goals of helping people.  They love asking questions and being involved in the lessons.  Today I was in interior operations with Bob, Carlan, and Mike.  It was really fun because it reminded me of the days at the JIBC burn building at the Maple Ridge campus.  The instructors taught fire behaviour, ventilation (something the bomberos currently do not do), and how to pull an attack line to multiple floors.

It was much easier to communicate today because Carlan and Mike speak Spanish, Bob is very good at what he does, and I have created good relationships with many of the bomberos in my group.  It was easy to get them hustling.  I found it even easier because I told one of the bomberos that he was in charge of rounding up the troops when it was time because I do not speak the language well enough to do that.

We went back to the cuartel for lunch and we did blood pressures for 60 people.  After lunch we hopped right back on the bus and got back to business.  Bob, Mike, and Carlan are very knowledgeable in their fire careers and I have already learned so much from them.

We went to the fire floor to burn the fuel load that I have created – I threw in a couple tires to keep the fire burning nice and hot!  We stayed in the room for a good 20 minutes to show the bomberos the thermal layering and how the fire behaves – It was really hot!  After that Bob, Kai, and I put the fire out and cleared out the room so that the fire could not restart.

At the end of the day, the bomberos understood the attack operation and were really interested in trying the ventilation strategy out because they have the fans.  We are very satisfied that they all learned something today and that this knowledge will be passed on to others in their fire halls.

Group in Gear BloodPressure_LizWilliam

Time to reflect

Today was a day filled with many endings and new beginnings. We started our morning in La Libertad with our final workout session in the area. It pushed us all to the brink and tested us both physically and mentally. We had a moment at the end to gather our thoughts; it was amazing to think back to two weeks ago when we started this as independent individuals and how we’ve now grown into a well developed team and family. We started off with just a vague understanding of one another and now we’ve reached a point where we know how each other work and are looking after the team as a whole. In this moment to reflect, we were able to appreciate the obstacles we’ve overcome these past 2 weeks and it’s been astonishing to see us all develop so well. Our strength has grown into a team mentality and moved away from the ideas of individualism.

There have been language barriers that only Google Translate has been able to resolve and times that communicating in Spanish was next to impossible, but we have managed to overcome these challenging times and have come together as an efficient team and unit. This time has also allowed us to appreciate the people we have met so far and not only the impact we have had on their lives, but the impact they have had on ours as well.

We said goodbye to our Spanish teacher and to Jesse (the woman who cared for the home we stayed in). This was the closing of one door in this adventure, but also the opening of a window as we move on to the next stage. Now we start our training week. With other fire fighters arriving, we have been starting to feel more of an impact of the fire hall mentality. We have been looking after more highly ranked individuals and ensuring they are taken care of. In doing so, we have all noticed something: there will always be people that don’t see eye to eye, but in the big picture we are all part of one big family that is working to achieve the same end result.


Learning to improvise

Today was a big day for us. Francisco picked us up at 7:30 am and we loaded the bus with all of our gear. Once we arrived at the cuartel, Chief Hurtado welcomed our team to the hall and told us about the challenges that the department faces. He specifically discussed the financial difficulties of the department. Currently, the department receives funds through fire insurance and they are in the process of negotiating to increase revenue. He mentioned that many of the engines are also nearing the end of their life. Throughout our journey, we’ve seen many engines that are out of commission due to the high cost of repairs.

We then went into the lunch room where all of the bomberos gathered for the lesson. We introduced our team and gave the bomberos a brief description of where we were from and what our experience was in the fire department. Shortly after, the lessons began. Liz started her lesson on the personal protective equipment (PPE) with Trent as her assistant, and I started the SCBA (Self Contained Breathing Apparatus) with Will as my assistant. Liz’s presentations went very well, even though she did not have a translator in the beginning. Luckily, our fellow bombero from West Vancouver, Carlan Mayne, assisted her with the lesson and he helped our team for the rest of the day. I did not have a translator for my lesson either which added a new challenge. Will and I improvised, and I conducted the practical portion of the lesson, which required more hands on practice. Half way into the SCBA demonstration, other team members came to assist with the Spanish. The second SCBA lesson went much smoother as we had an English speaking bombero assist with the translation.

For the second half of the day, Trent ran his lesson on hose deployments (with Liz), and Will conducted a lesson on ladders (with myself). Trent’s lessons went very smoothly, but he also had to improvise because finding the equipment that was required for his plan proved to be a challenge. Will was hit with a curve-ball, as the only functioning ladder that was available was a 14-foot ladder. He also did not have a translator for the beginning of the lesson, so he moved to the practical portion of the lesson immediately as well. Our team ended up coming together by fixing the 35 foot ladder’s halyard, and in the end Will was able to deliver his complete lesson plan.

The day was not without its challenges, and it was nice to see the whole team come together to ensure that the day went as smooth as possible. We all improvised with our lesson plans, and adapted to the difficulties of the day. In the end, all of the bomberos seemed to have enjoyed themselves and learned a great deal. We all had a few laughs, and the general mood was enthusiastic and excited. It was a great day, and we (the students) feel very happy with what we accomplished.


Walking in town Class2 Class

Visiting Chalatenango & La Palma

Today was our last day of circuit training on the beach and we all pushed ourselves even harder than usual. We were still pretty exhausted from hiking the Izalco Volcano the day before, which was equivalent to doing Vancouver’s Grouse Grind twice! After training, Brian gave us a chance to have a few minutes on the beach to ourselves: such a treat! Some of us soaked up the sun, letting the water wash over our feet, while others dove straight into the oncoming waves. We are all so happy to be in El Salvador. When I looked over to see if everyone was enjoying their few minutes of free time as much as I was, all the guys had huge smiles on their faces.

After a two hour drive, we arrived at the Chalatenango Fire Station. Upon arrival, we passed through a guard post with two armed military men. The fire station is next door to a maximum security prison that holds mostly gang members. The guards wear black balaclavas to prevent themselves from being identified by gang members, as this could potentially place their families at risk. We were greeted kindly by the Cupo (Captain) of the fire station. Once we had completed introductions, we performed 6 blood pressure checks. It was my turn to do the SCBA presentation in Spanish and I was extremely nervous!  However, the presentation went much better than I expected and I was pleased to hear that the Cupo (Captain) said he had no problems understanding my Spanish – what a relief! Kai demonstrated the donning and doffing of the equipment in perfect timing with the presentation. At the end of the presentation we offered gifts and as we prepared to leave, we saw a couple of the bomberos lean a 24 foot escalera (ladder) against a coconut tree. They bomberos proceeded to grab us fresh coconuts as a thank you for coming to see them.  After enjoying the coconuts, we thanked them and said our goodbyes.

We then drove to La Palma, which is a beautiful town in the northern mountains of Chalatenango. This area of the country was recently protected by UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) in 2011. Artisan murals and paintings can be seen on every telephone poll and wall. It was an interesting town as it has no fire engines and only one ambulance. The small fire hall was clean and shared by the police, paramedics and firefighters in town. They had a cupboard stocked with sleeping bags, rope, a CPR Annie doll, a tri-pod, and some helmets.  Although the main focus of the firefighters is concerning public education, they hope to receive a fire engine in the future from Canada.

We met with two of the bomberos who were very friendly, offering us beverages and cookies when we got to the station. They mentioned that the town was having a party and consequently they have been getting very little sleep due to the noise. We witnessed a couple of older possibly intoxicated individuals on the street and we even helped one distraught daughter walk her father safely home. Kim found a nice shop for paintings and we each purchased a few nice items from a local artist, Fernando Llort. After a long hard day on the road, we arrived in La Libertad. Kim decided it would be a nice treat to take us out for dinner to a seafood restaurant. At the end of the meal, we were all very satisfied – well fed, and pleased with ourselves for completing 17 fire halls tour and presentations over the last 15 days in 11 provinces throughout the country!

Today went extremely well and we are all in good spirits!


map Firetruck Group with EMS

Sonsonate, Ahuachapan, and Santa Ana visits

This morning we switched up the fitness routine…well, we switched up the location by moving 50 feet from our usual spot. It was been nice having a change of scenery, one we all welcomed!

We left the house at 8:30am and made our way Sonosante. After two hours of driving the windy roads, we arrived at a station that was built in 1987. We didn’t get chance to explore the station, but we completed blood pressures checks for 8 bomberos. The demonstration went perfectly and our presentation of gifts (including a large Canadian flag, a ‘bandera’ in Spanish). We enjoyed meeting the station’s ‘recratea perro’ – the only rescue dog in all of Sonsonate. While we were there, we also saw the old Vancouver reserve truck donated by SafeTec out of Abbotsford. We learned that some of the equipment was also purchased by funds raised by the Rotary Club. The motbomba (engine) had a number of decals in Spanish, and we were told Vancouver Fire and Rescue and the City of Vancouver put these on before the truck was sent to El Salvador. The station has one motobomba which holds 250 gallons, and 1 sisterna (water tender). The hydrants in the city do not have running water flowing into them so if there is fire, the fire fighters must use the sisterna or know where the by-pass value is in order to open the gates and allow water from the mains to the hydrants.

On the road we passed by Izalco Volacano and were surprised by how steep it is. We are planning to hike the volcano on Wednesday; it will be a challenge with the heat and humidity but are all up for it. We’ve been told that we will be able to look right into the crater and see the steam rise. Very exciting!

After that, we went to Tazumal ace-logical site: the oldest Mayan ruins in El Salvador. Unfortunately, it was closed when we arrived so we decided to just eat our lunch in the back of the pickup truck outside the ruins. Hopefully one day we will have a chance to visit it again when it is open.

We arrived at the station in Ahuachapan at 2:30pm, where we met the officer in charge. This station has one female volunteer staff member, but no other females at the station. They receive approximately 400 calls each year, which they document on three paper journals. This fire hall has only been open for a year and was one of the nicest we have seen so far. We were then shown another building that looked like it was held together by toothpicks. It was their previous fire hall, which is now only used for storing extra equipment. We couldn’t believe the enormous difference between the two halls.

This was also one of the largest halls we have visited. Their dining area has three large tables with chairs. We looked through the compartments of their motobomba (fire engine) and once again noticed retired SCBA (Self-Contained Breathing Apparatus)  from Surrey; we are beginning to understand this is a common theme in El Salvador. It is so great to know things are getting recycled and being used to help others!

They have many pieces of extra equipment, including an ambulance and bombero passenger vehicle. Like many other stations we’ve visited, equipment unfortunately cannot always be repaired in the country. This is one of El Salvador’s biggest challenges because the repair involves a professional or funding is not readily available. Despite the challenges the hall faces, it specializes in technical rescues, which is different from most of the other halls we visited where they deal predominantly with wild land fire.

The last hall of the day was Santa Anna. We knew from the previous hall that this area of El Salvador was more affluent than others we have visited. We all noticed a definite change while we were driving the streets of Santa Ana compared to other large cities we have seen. The Hefe (chief) met us with open arms, we completed blood pressure checks on 11 people, and provided a SCBA (Self-Contained Breathing Apparatus) presentation. There are 7 fire fighters per shift at this fire hall and their equipment appeared relatively new. Similar to the other halls we’ve visited, they had some equipment from BC, but their motobomba (engine) was an E-one from the United States, and some of their equipment was even from Germany. While this hall has more resources than some of the other halls we’ve visited, we recognize how fortunate we are in Canada to have the resources and available equipment that we need.  Again, we offered a large Canadian flag and gifts, and then enjoyed ice cream cones in front of the fire station – such a treat! We enjoyed spending time with the chief while eating ice cream out of pink cones, and discussing changes that have taken place since the first Canadian deployment in El Salvador. We are so grateful, this truly is a once in a lifetime experience!

group photo3group photo4Elizabeth