Start a public administration degree at American Military University.
First responders all over the world make great sacrifices to respond to disaster, but also when aiding in the arduous recovery efforts that often follows. In many countries, first responders make such sacrifices with very few resources and minimal support from the government.
During a recent visit to Guatemala, we witnessed an extreme example of this sacrifice when hundreds of local volunteer firefighters risked their health, and potentially their lives, to respond to the catastrophic eruption of the Volcan de Fuego in June of 2018. We had the opportunity to interview some of these firefighters about their role in the response and recovery efforts in the wake of the eruption.
Guatemalan Firefighters Respond to Volcanic Eruption
When news of the eruption broke, firefighters from around the country traveled to the area to assist in response efforts. One firefighter told us that his team was able to rescue five people who were badly injured and bring them to the hospital. However, the focus quickly shifted from rescue operations to recovery missions.
From the beginning, police and military had limited access to the affected area because of the extreme danger—those who were allowed in went in shifts, ranging from 15 minutes to an hour. After the eruption, the scorched earth was still so hot that volunteers could see groundwater boiling.
The government wanted to shut the site down after only 72 hours in accordance with Guatemalan policy. However, due to media attention and pressure from civil society groups, they allowed firefighters and volunteers to keep looking for bodies. Firefighters refused to leave bodies behind when there was still a possibility of finding them.
Nobody knows exactly how many people died from the eruption. The government reported a number of 332 dead or presumed dead, but its numbers have very little credibility among the people we talked to who sometimes processed the bodies themselves. However, the numbers we most commonly heard directly from Guatemalan firefighters were between 800 and 1,200. The large gap in estimates illustrates the lack of precision and trust on the ground.
We know for sure that two firefighters, as well as the director of emergency services, died that day. One survivor told us how he went to the house of his fellow firefighter to inform the family of his demise. The arduous recovery work takes a significant physical and psychological toll on all firefighters.
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Rescue, Recovery Hampered by Lack of Resources
A constant theme in our discussions with the Guatemalan firefighters was the acute lack of resources. Since the eruption, this has remained a problem. One fire station near Panajachel lacks even the most basic equipment and firefighters are left to fight fires with little more than buckets of water.
Fire stations in Guatemala receive a monthly stipend from the government, but when the stipend runs out, so do their resources. For example, when the gas allotment for the month has been used, the government will not provide any further assistance. Instead, firefighters reported using their own money and asking for donations from others to help cover the costs of keeping the department running.
They also rely heavily on donated equipment. Much of the equipment comes from donations from firefighters in the United States and through U.S. Rotary Clubs. Donations often include fire gear, technical assistance, and other key resources. Guatemalan organizations like FundaMaya are also providing much-needed support. In Panajachel, FundaMaya’s One Team/One Mission program seeks to provide firefighters with equipment, training, and also psychological resources. This equipment and financial support will likely be the difference between life and death in future emergencies and disasters in these communities.
Guatemalan Government Relies on Volunteers
Another consistent narrative from Guatemalan firefighters and other volunteers was that during an emergency like this volcanic eruption, the government leaves much of the response and recovery responsibilities to volunteers. Most firefighters reported very little direct interaction with government workers. In fact, the Guatemalan President, Jimmy Morales, announced that the federal government did not have even one centavo in its budget to put toward relief efforts after natural disasters.
Because of this, firefighters were initially digging for bodies with shovels or just their hands. At one point, they passed a hat among themselves to collect money to pay for the rental of a machine to dig for bodies that were buried under ash and rocks. As a result of what they saw, Guatemalan citizens began donating directly to the rescue and recovery teams, rather than sending money to the government.
Commitment to Community Drives Guatemalan Firefighters
Despite the lack of resources, funding, and government support, the firefighters we spoke to remain incredibly committed. We spoke to a fire chief who has served in the Panajachel area of Guatemala for 39 years. He is a volunteer and also a mechanic. He plans to retire from his paid job in a few years, but has no intention of stopping his work as a first responder. He believes that the need is too great and the sense of community is binding.
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All the Guatemalan firefighters we spoke to expressed a strong commitment to their public safety mission and many noted they had no realistic expectations that the government will start providing necessary assistance. Instead, they turn to their community, which is well-known for coming together and giving during times of need. Local community members have a high level of respect for firefighters because they are always the first ones to the scene, risking their own lives to help those affected by devastating fires and other disasters.
To support firefighters in Guatemala, visit the FundaMaya website and enter “for firefighters” in the note section.
About the Authors:
Dr. Kate Brannum is the program director for American Public University System’s doctoral program in Global Security and has been teaching at the university level for 25 years and online for 17 years. Dr Brannum received her Ph.D. in Political Science with a concentration in international relations from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. Her research focus is on non-state actors and human security.
Dr. Michelle Watts is a faculty director for American Public University System. In addition to supervising faculty members, she teaches courses on international relations, international development, and Latin American Studies online. Michelle is an advisor to the Gamma Omega chapter of the Sigma Iota Rho international relations honor society. She has obtained several grants to conduct research in recent years focusing on indigenous people.