by Raisa Bruner:
On the outskirts of the central part of Santiago, in a suburban neighborhood known as Ñuñoa, there’s a building emblazoned with a Star of David. It’s not a synagogue or a Jewish community center, though. It’s a fire station.
In Chile, all fire departments are manned by volunteer-only firefighters. Organized into districts, each part of the country is home to a set of independent fire companies. And some of those volunteer fire companies distinguish themselves from their peers by associating with a specific cultural heritage. This remnant of the colonial past means that some companies are recognized as Spanish, Italian, German, English, French, Croatian—or Jewish.
Our guide for the afternoon, Alex Herzberg, is in his eighth year as a firefighter for “Bomba Israel,” as it’s called. Founded in 1954 by a group of Jewish volunteer firefighters in Ñuñoa to fill the need for a fifth company in the neighborhood, Bomba Israel has served its surrounding community continuously for over 50 years. There are 20,000 Jews in Chile, and the majority of them reside in Santiago. Today, most of the Jewish inhabitants of the Ñuñoa area have migrated to other parts of the city. But Bomba Israel has persisted as a local mainstay. The firefighters respond to an average of 1.5 emergencies each day; their specialty, other than firefighting, is emergency rescue response.
In the garage, Alex lifted up the panels on the side of their shiny red rescue truck to show us the assembled equipment within: the heavy iron “jaws of life” for removing victims from car accidents, sets of specialized tools for stabilizing crashed vehicles, first aid supplies, coiled ropes, heavy-duty helmets. He moved deftly through the shelves; this stuff was not just for show. Bomba Israel is a troupe of about 70 men. Membership is for life, however, and only about half of those are active firefighters. Alex will spend the next 7 years on call. Currently, he lives at the fire station and works the night shift.
At the time of their creation, many of the culturally-associated fire companies were more social clubs than anything else, a place for men with a shared heritage to congregate and work together. On the third floor of Bomba Israel’s fire station, a pool table, a pinball machine, and a flat-screen TV are reminders of this social past—and help to maintain it.
History is a point of pride for Bomba Israel: their foundational document hangs framed on the wall; a set of medals awarded to their most decorated veteran sit in a glass-encased display; portraits of their directors are up in their high-ceilinged meeting room. Composite images—just like those found in the houses of a sorority or fraternity—also decorate the walls. But these ones include men with white hair and heavy beards, their pictures set right alongside freshly-shaven boys of seventeen.
Firefighting officially begins at 17, said Alex. But, for boys like Alex, the training can begin as early as age 12. Due to declining interest in joining the ranks of firefighters, Bomba Israel established a Youth Firefighters’ Brigade in 1967 to kick-start interest. Today, their youth program has been copied across Chile, training up kids in the art of rolling out hoses, clambering up and down ladders, and administering CPR.
The four of us Globalist reporters visiting Bomba Israel watched as—in a large, quiet park a few blocks from the fire station—the Youth Firefighter’s Brigade of Bomba Israel and another local fire company’s group of youngsters gathered for a drill. The boys lined up at the start to listen to directions from their teachers. They were outfitted in full-on firefighters’ gear, and they faced an obstacle course replete with tubes to wriggle through, targets to aim at with their fire hoses, and high walls to climb over.
We watched from the sidelines, along with a smattering of parents and siblings, as the youth firefighters approached their tasks. One group “rescued” a mock victim of an accident and moved him carefully across the field. Another assembled a complex fire hose path and put out distant “fires.” From a distance, they could have been any troupe of coordinated professionals completing a drill. But up close, their round faces were furrowed in concentration and they tripped over their too-long pants.
In a country where emergencies are real—where the damages of the 2010 earthquake and tsunami are remembered and honored as reminders of the dangers Chileans live with daily, given that Chile is situated in one of the most seismically active regions of the world—the gravity of these young boys’ games was almost eerie. And in a city of 5 million, accidents happen all the time. But Alex said that it’s not that popular these days to be a firefighter. Bomba Israel has now even opened up to accept women among its ranks, although none have yet joined.
Bomba Israel’s motto is “Superación,” which means “Overcoming.” Whether it is the obstacle of integration into the Chilean community (which is 70 percent Catholic) or the challenge of fighting a fire or assisting in the aftermath of a car crash, the fire company has worked to follow its own advice.
Chile’s volunteer-only firefighting system has its drawbacks, but perhaps the unusual attraction of the cultural fire companies will continue to bring boys and men together to respond to the crises that Chile faces. In the States, this might seem like an odd way to organize for disaster; but here, it appears to be working. We left the drill wondering why kids back home don’t have the chance to learn the useful skills of firefighting and emergency response growing up. When we were young, we would have appreciated the lessons.