Fire Soldiers

Firefighters from Central America train on new technologies for responding to local and regional emergencies.
Geraldine Cook/Diálogo | 22 September 2017

Members of the Guatemalan Army’s Humanitarian Rescue Unit prepare their fire suits to begin CENTAM SMOKE. (Photo: Geraldine Cook/Diálogo)

Under a scorching sun and temperatures of 33°C, Guatemalan’s Army Specialist Noel Fuentes Fuentes, the chief of the Guatemalan Army’s Humanitarian Rescue Brigade, gets his fire suit ready to begin a training exercise. His helmet, jacket, pants, boots, and gloves comprise the equipment that protects him from the fire and its effects during fires and other disasters.

Volunteer firefighter Tamara José García, from the Honorable Managua Fire Department in Nicaragua, checks the oxygen tank on her autonomous breathing equipment during CENTAM SMOKE training. (Photo: Geraldine Cook/Diálogo)

“Bad weather is our enemy. In the event of an incident, we have to be ready to aid our population,” Spc. Fuentes said. He adjusted his helmet to head out onto the obstacle course for a mock rescue using mannequins of various sizes. “In this course, we’re basically learning how we’re going to operate when a plane crashes, there is a structure fire, or other emergencies occur.”

Next to him, Tamara José García, a volunteer firefighter from the Honorable Managua Fire Department in Nicaragua, checks the oxygen tank that will allow her to breathe in oxygen-deprived or toxic areas. “I’ve always had an eagerness for helping people, and being a firefighter means learning lots of things about how to save lives,” she said. “Being in this training is like being in a firefighter’s paradise. It’s amazing how much equipment they have and how prepared they are with technology.”

Spc. Fuentes and García are two of 29 firefighters who participated in the Central America Sharing Mutual Operational Knowledge and Experiences exercise, known as CENTAM SMOKE, led by Joint Task Force-Bravo’s 612th Air Base Squadron. The training was held from August 21st to 25th at José Enrique Soto Cano Air Base in Honduras, with representatives from Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua, and Panama.

CENTAM SMOKE is a training program sponsored by Joint Task Force-Bravo (JTF-Bravo) to improve Central American firefighters’ capacities. During four days of training, the firefighters share knowledge and experiences on personal protection equipment, safety practices, structural and live aircraft fires, basic medical training, loading and unloading helicopters, operating Bambi buckets, and vehicle extraction.

The exercise

“It’s very important that we keep working with our partner nations in the event that we need to provide them support for operations or we need their help for our operations,” said U.S. Air Force Senior Master Sergeant Jerome William, the assistant chief of training of the Soto Cano Fire Department.

CENTAM SMOKE began in 2002 in Honduras. In 2009, the program expanded to Central America, and since then, JTF-Bravo has trained more than 700 firefighters from the region. The exercise is held twice a year, and military and civilian firefighters from each Central American nation with emergency-response experience are invited.

Central American firefighters take part in a fire simulation from a CENTAM SMOKE training helicopter. (Photo: Geraldine Cook/Diálogo)

“We are very interested in learning how other countries like Costa Rica or Nicaragua handle their emergency situations with the equipment they have because we can share different information, knowledge, and techniques, and learn from each other to make each country better.”

Central American firefighters work shoulder-to-shoulder with their U.S. counterparts to share experiences when facing an emergency. “This training unites our Central American brothers and JTF-Bravo in a combined exercise which allows us to be prepared in the event of an emergency in our region so that we can have shared knowledge in our rescue duties,” said Herberth Gaekel, a fire inspector assigned to the 612th Air Squadron.

The exercise highlights the importance of firefighter safety during rescue operations. “Safety first, to be able to do our rescue duty well,” Gaekel said. He explained that the training is divided into groups that work in different activities simultaneously. For example, while some firefighters do vehicle extraction tests, others practice fire extinguishing techniques.

Shared expectations

“My expectations are rather high because we came here to learn techniques that we don’t have,” Second Lieutenant Freddy Reinaldo Andino Anguila, a firefighter with the Honorable Managua Fire Department, said. Andino, who has been a volunteer firefighter for more than 10 years, prepared his equipment to conduct the mock fire test from a helicopter. “This training is essential because when we have an emergency in Central America, we will already know each other and our techniques will already be standardized. We’ll know who to go to and how to work together.”

Participants value the exchange of knowledge and experiences among nations. “The knowledge and experience that the Soto Cano firefighters have, allows us to learn an awful lot. We can transfer their techniques to our own countries,” said Lieutenant Leonardo Castro Guzmán, a firefighter with the Fire Department of Costa Rica. He was about to conduct a test in a Chinook CH-47 helicopter used for fighting forest fires. “It’s incredibly important to our region that the United States is assisting us in these kinds of emergencies.”

“There is a brotherhood among all Central American firefighters, and that also allows us to link our procedures, harmonize our criteria, and share together in a way that we can say that the firefighters of Central America are a single unit and that we are in sync in our emergency response,” said Fireman Jorge Luis Arias, the supervisor of the Rescue and Firefighting Unit of the Executive Autonomous Port Committee of El Salvador. “Firefighters have a universal language,” Arias added before beginning a vehicle extraction exercise in which they learn techniques for rescuing victims trapped in a car.

“We are all contributing something special so that, when a disaster happens, our nations can support each other,” Spc. Fuentes said. “This is quite a good experience. You bring one technique, and the other countries bring another. We complement each other to form a single unit.”

The experience was enriching not only for the participants but also for those who remain in Soto Cano. “The firefighters with whom we work and train will return to their country, and will use these skills to save somebody’s life in their country,” Senior Master Sgt. Williams said. “And I had something to do with that. It’s a great honor and a privilege.”

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