Calif. Firefighters Train Mexico's Firefighters

March 13, 2012
A different country, older equipment and language barriers, but still that could not weaken the camaraderie felt by members of the Vacaville Fire Protection District during a recent trip to Mexico to provide training for firefighters south of the border.

March 12--A different country, older equipment and language barriers, but still that could not weaken the camaraderie felt by members of the Vacaville Fire Protection District during a recent trip to Mexico to provide training for firefighters south of the border.

For Vacaville Fire Protection District Chief Howard Wood, his wife, Laura, and nine other members of the department, a weeklong trip to San Martin Hidalgo in February provided them with more than a series of snapshots and a chance to get out of town -- it left them with memories, friendships and a deeper appreciation for many aspects of their profession that often go overlooked.

The trip marked the second journey by department members across the border to provide training for fire

personnel from three counties and 16 municipalities in Mexico, after an initial visit in 2006 to donate much needed equipment.

"They had nothing before," Wood said, adding that on his first visit firefighters, known as "bomberos," lacked basic protective clothing and their primary firefighting tools were shovels and rakes.

Since that time, gradual efforts have been made by Vaca District to get their fellow firefighters up to speed with tools and equipment -- and the training to match.

With Howard and Laura going down a few days early, they were met by nine other department members Feb. 5, the day before the training was to begin.

"We coordinated with the chief of the San Martin department and he put invitations out for

surrounding (municipalities)," he said.

After narrowing down a list of training needs to three specific areas, Vaca District personnel zeroed in on providing hands-on training and classroom time on establishing an incident command system, performing auto extrications and proper use of fire gear and equipment, Howard said. The 67 bomberos who attended were broken into three groups and took turns alternating through each of the three training sessions.

Everything from ropes and hoses to how to put on turnouts, the training covered a broad scope of subjects, with classes beginning at 9 a.m. and continuing until 2 p.m., with a two- hour break before ending for the day at 7 p.m.

Still, Howard said, it was difficult to condense training that usually takes place over years into a five-day training session.

"We tried to answer any questions they had for us. Five days is a short time to teach what most of us get over years," Wood said.

Wood said he was struck with the openness, genuine hospitality and the eagerness many had to share their few worldly possessions with him and others in the group.

"It's very humbling," Howard said. "They totally appreciate what you do for them.

One instance that stuck out to Wood came toward the end of their stay when his Laura was approached by a bombero and, with nothing else to offer, he begged to give her a picture of a saint he carried with him in his wallet as protection for his family.

"You've got to be there and live it, to really find out what it is (like)," Wood said.

Wood was not alone in his praise of the experience, which Battalion Chief Tim Walton called "one of the most rewarding things you can do in the fire service."

"They're very proud of what little they do have," he added.

For Vaca District volunteer Scott Wagness, the bomberos' eagerness to learn was refreshing and, because of the equipment-oriented, hands-on nature of the training, Wagness said many of the language barriers faced by the group were overcome.

"It made it really easy to teach because they all wanted to learn," said Wagness, who taught a class on using self contained breathing apparatuses. " ... they picked it up really fast, you didn't have to show them five times, they picked it up on the first time and did it right. That was exciting."

Other aspects of the training emphasized the importance of teamwork and looking out for your partner -- a new concept for many of the bomberos, who came from different departments.

"We made sure to focus on the fact that everybody that's a firefighter, we're all a family," Wagness said. "The most important thing is you and your partner ... You have to do your job the best you can, (and) the safest you can."

Scheduled to leave a few days ahead of the rest of his group, Wagness was compelled to extend his trip once he realized how great the training need was, missing both valuable class time and tests in his paramedics courses and paying for the change in his plane ticket out of pocket.

The lack of what many would consider basic equipment also came as a shock to Wagness and fellow firefighters, and many gave away their personal gear, ranging from shirts and gloves to helmet hoods.

"We were told ahead of time that they have very limited resources," he said. "But I didn't realize how bad it is in certain areas."

Wagness said he was struck with the appreciation and gratitude of the bomberos, especially after giving away a pair of turnout gloves to replace plastic gardening gloves nearly produced tears from the recipient.

"Something as small as a pair of $30 gloves," and you can see the impact and importance to them in their eyes, Wagness said.

"They wanted to learn, they wanted us to be there, and it was kind of touching to see all that gratitude," he said, adding it was an experience he and other department members would gladly do again.

Hopefully, according to Wood, if funding for the trip, which was sponsored by the Vacaville Volunteer Firemen's Association, remains in the future that's exactly what will happen.

"If that keeps going, we'll be doing that again," Wood said. "We hope to do it once a year."

Follow Staff Writer Catherine Bowen at

Copyright 2012 - The Reporter, Vacaville, Calif.

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