Fire Station 20 in the Esperance neighborhood hosted a special guest Friday morning, July 29: the Fire Commissioner for the City of Culiacan, capitol of the Mexican state of Sinaloa.
Fire Commissioner Jorge Chavez paid a visit to Station 20 to thank Fire District 1 firefighters who have been traveling to Culiacan annually to serve as volunteer instructors through a U.S.-based nonprofit organization called Firefighters Crossing Borders.
Members of the organization founded in 2000 include active and retired firefighters, medical personnel and other volunteers committed to providing advanced training, equipment and vehicles to departments throughout Mexico who request assistance.
“We appreciate all the support, all the help,” said Chavez after shaking hands with Station 20 on-duty firefighters Dave Stevens and Dave “Bronco” Erickson, and Captain James Curtis, all from Snohomish County Fire District 1. It was the first visit to the Seattle area for Chavez, who was accompanied on the trip by his wife and two young sons.
Chavez, who works as an attorney in addition to serving as fire commissioner, said he became passionate about ensuring that local bomberos — the Spanish word for firefighters — have the training and equipment they need after he served eight years as a volunteer firefighter. “I decided at that time that someday I would make a change,” he said.
Stevens, a regular volunteer in Culiacan, said nearly all of municipal budgets in Mexico are directed toward police services, “for obvious reasons.” Culiacan, according to Wikipedia, is headquarters for the Sinaloa Cartel, the largest drug trafficking, money laundering and organized crime syndicate in the Western hemisphere.
As a result. most firefighters are “volunteers using equipment that is donated or given to them,” Stevens said.
“When we started going down there the firefighters were literally running into burning houses in T-shirts and flip flops because they didn’t have boots and uniforms,” he added.
Erickson, another longtime Firefighters Without Borders volunteer, explained that many of the donations are firefighting gear and equipment that legally has to be taken out of service after a decade even if it hasn’t been used.
“It’s no longer certified by our laws to be used even though the gear is perfectly acceptable and in great shape — it’s expired. Even if it’s brand new in a package and [has been] in a storage room for 10 years,” Erickson said. “We have a tremendous amount of equipment that will see decades of use [in Mexico],” he said.
Volunteers who travel to Mexico spend three days conducting training, followed by visits to fire stations and some social activities. Mexican firefighters who attend break up into groups for classes on topics ranging from firefighting to water rescue to vehicle extrication.
Firefighters face unique challenges in the state of Sinaloa, which has a population of 800,000 but only three fire stations. “So if you have a really bad car wreck, it might be an hour and a half before they get there,” Stevens said.
While Erickson noted that firefighters in many parts of the world could use the type of support he and other volunteers provide, Mexico is a practical place for U.S. firefighters to provide assistance. “Because of its proximity, it’s very easy for us to get our surplus equipment across the border,” he said.
“It’s a great program,” Erickson added. “It supports our brothers and sisters south of the border doing the same work we’re doing, but without the right equipment or training or apparatus. They are only doing it out of the goodness of their heart. They are not getting paid for it. They are very dedicated to their community and we want to be dedicated to and supportive of them, so they can do their jobs more safely.”
— Story and Fire Station 20 photos by Teresa Wippel