The firefighters in Lirquen, Chile proudly display the gear and truck they had received through the Alberta Charity, Canadian Aid for Fire Services Abroad. The pumper truck was donated by Leduc County Fire Services in Nisku, and the Chilean firefighters were thrilled beyond imagining to receive their beautiful new "girl".
Photo kindly submitted for use by the Leduc County Fire Services #1 Nisku and CAFSA.
A little known Alberta charity is making big differences around the world with the help of a "large" donation from Leduc County Fire Services. A donation of about 28,000 lbs, in the form of a pumper truck.
The charity, Canadian Aid for Fire Services Abroad, or CAFSA, based in St. Albert and run by firefighter Victor Fernandez, is a non-profit organization, run by volunteers and privately funded.
Born in Chile, and remaining there through college, Victor's impetus to begin this organization began when he saw what he considered to be a tragic waste of firefighting resources.
"In Canada and other developed countries there are strict regulations in regard to firefighting equipment." said Victor. "This is designed to keep firefighters safe, and is a very good thing, but these rules are completely unknown in third world countries such as Chile. Here, it costs about $10,000.00 to outfit one firefighter in protective gear. This gear must be retired after a designated number of years, even if it was only used for training and never saw an actual fire. In Chile, firefighters run into burning buildings wearing regular shoes, jeans and t-shirts. Whatever they happen to have on is usually the only 'protective gear' that they have."
As a young adult, Victor became a volunteer firefighter while still in Chile. "It's not a career choice over there." he chuckled. "There are no 'professional' firefighters in third world countries. Everyone is a volunteer. The firehalls are financially supported by donations and sometimes even 'dues' that are charged to the firefighters themselves. There are places in South America where firehalls have had their electricity and gas shut off because they had no money to pay their bills."
So when Victor came to Canada and became a volunteer firefighter here, he saw an opportunity to assist his flame fighting brethren back in Chile. He began by investigating what happened with old equipment, and when he discovered that it would all go into the landfill, he decided to gather this surplus gear and give it a second life. In 1999 his first donation of two helmets was sent out. Since that time Victor has enabled over 30 tons of equipment to be repurposed and sent to firefighters in Chile, Bolivia, Peru, Ecuador, Columbia, Guatemala, Cuba and El Salvador.
Before gear can be sent it has to be cleaned and inspected to ensure that it is still sound, and in good repair. There are also requirements that the receiving fire departments must meet as well, particularly for those on the receiving end of a fire truck. They must prove that they have the ability to properly store, care for, and mechanically maintain a truck. So far, Victor has been successful in rehoming twelve retired Canadian fire trucks.
Canadian fire code regulations state that it is illegal for fire vehicles to be on the street longer than 20 years, so trucks that typically only have 10-12,000 kms on them have to be retired.
This was the case with the Leduc County pumper truck. When Chief Galloway, and the County of Leduc, discovered what Victor and CAFSA were doing for firefighters in less fortunate countries, they decided to donate their 20 year old pumper truck to the charity. In researching who would be the best recipient of this massive gift, a firehall in Lirquen, Chile rose to the top of the list.
"It is a huge undertaking to ship a fire truck from Leduc, Alberta to Lirquen, Chile." stated Victor. In a trip that can take up to 16 months to complete, first it undergoes a thorough mechanical inspection here in Alberta, then it travels on a flat deck trailer to the docks in Vancouver, and from there it is loaded onto a ship owned by Gear Bulk Shipping, who takes it across to South America for a massively reduced rate. These partnerships, such as the one with Gear Bulk, mean the world to Victor, as CAFSA covers all the costs of getting the equipment to it's destinations.
Even though Victor travels with almost every donation to it's new-found home in order to instruct the recipients in the equipment's use, he stresses that it certainly isn't his name that is remembered by the firefighters. "If you ask any of the firefighters in Lirquen where their "new" truck came from they don't say CAFSA," said Victor. "They will tell you it came from Leduc, Canada. I have to say that none of this could be done without donations from fire halls such as Leduc County #1. They really live the concept of brotherhood between firefighters. It is such an unbelievable idea for people in third world countries such as Chile to accept that they are truly receiving a fire truck for free. No one does something for nothing in their culture, so because they have nothing to give in return they don't expect anything. They keep waiting for me to hand them a bill at any moment."
It was such an amazing thing for this group of volunteers to get this truck, 40 of the volunteer firefighters packed the docks in Lirquen, awaiting its arrival. And when the crane swung the pumper truck off the ship and gently set it onto the dock, many of these brave men burst into tears.
Victor shared that Leduc's truck certainly found a wonderful new home. "Those men treat that truck like a queen!" he laughed. "I made the mistake of slamming one of the doors when I was showing them how the truck worked, and one of the men gently chastised me by asking me not to treat 'their girl' so rough!"
That's what CAFSA does. It turns a piece of useless metal that was about to end up in a landfill, into a life saving, valued piece of equipment that will serve this community another 20 years.
Unfortunately, Victor is unsure of how much longer CAFSA will be able to continue it's valuable work. "90% of the time it is just me doing the work." shared Victor. "I'm the one at the warehouse until 2am making sure everything is in order, and I am the one going out to try and find sponsors to keep this charity going, as well as working my regular job. I have been a firefighter for 30 years, and knowing the differences that CAFSA makes keeps me going, but my wife has told me that at some point in the future she would like to see me a little more often, so I realize I can't do this forever."
Victor has knocked on every door, at every level of government, hoping to find help to keep CAFSA going, and each time he has been told that it is a great cause but because it does not benefit Canadian firefighters they cannot help. He has also attempted to find volunteers that would be interested in taking over the charity one day, but realizes that it is a tremendous amount of work that requires someone to devote a good part of their life to the cause, and currently no one has stepped forward with that kind of passion.
Regardless of that, there is still a huge need for CAFSA's services, as tens of thousands of volunteer firefighters are still risking their lives every day with no protection what so ever. "Sometimes I receive up to 75 email requests for help in a week." said Victor. "All from different fire halls throughout the world." Right now CAFSA has another warehouse full of equipment to donate and Victor is hoping to send it to Guayaquil, Ecuador in October. After that he is looking into sending shipments to fire halls in the Galapagos Islands and Easter Island.
"What keeps me going at the end of the day," shared Victor, "is knowing CAFSA is a part of the solution, not the problem. When I think of all my firefighting brothers around the world dying from smoke induced cancers and injuries that could have been prevented by having the same gear that we have here, how can I stop?"
To find out more about Victor and CAFSA, make a donation, or get involved, you can go to their website at www.cafsa.net.