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Posted by portugalpress on July 27, 2017
Sub Chief Alexandra Marçalo

Once again this year we have seen terrible fires throughout Portugal and social media have been full of praise for the bombeiros, many of whom are volunteers.

Three times I have had to call the bombeiros to fires around our house which is surrounded by dry grass fields. One fire started when an electric pylon ignited and the other two are unknown, perhaps caused by a careless cigarette or a bottle reflecting the sun.

Each time the bombeiros took just minutes to arrive and extinguish the fires.

Last month a fire broke out in the field opposite us and, watching from the upstairs windows, we saw how fast the fire spreads fueled by the strong June wind. Thankfully the helicopter arrived quickly, continuously scooping up water from the stream that runs along the field and dropping it on the flames. The fire re-ignited the next day and again it was a matter of minutes before the bombeiros and helicopter were on the scene.

This year, the critical fire period, as decreed by law, started on June 22 and lasts until September 30. That is 10 days earlier than last year. During this time severe restrictions exist on bonfires and smoking in agricultural areas.

After the fire, I decided to visit the Lagoa fire station (founded in 1978) to meet some of my local bombeiros. Did you know that Bombeiros Voluntários de Lagoa means Volunteer Firefighters of Lagoa?

Their motto painted outside the entrance is “Vida por Vida” (A Life for a Life). There are 45 professionals and 50 volunteers, aged 18 to 63, of which 30 are women. It is often the case that families work together, husband and wives or fathers and sons. So what drives these brave individuals to become volunteers?

There have always been volunteer firefighters in Portugal. It was in 1395 that King D. João I first structured a fire service in Lisbon by ordering that all carpenters should take their axes and all women should take their water pitchers to fight fires. In 1513, in Porto, several citizens were elected to ‘patrol’ whether the rest the town’s citizens were putting out their kitchen fires at the designated time prompted by the town’s ‘night bell’.

In 1612, Porto’s carpenters were given axes to diligently fight fires. However, it was only around 1646 that specific equipment was purchased for the firefighters who were then also paid for their duty.

Lisbon’s first three fire stations were created in 1678 fitted with the necessary equipment including folding ladders. Two years later, two fire pumps and copper buckets (50 for each borough) were ordered from Holland. Stonemasons, carpenters and other masters were enlisted as firefighters, although these were hardly volunteers as they were under threat of prison for each time they did not show up at a fire!

The Fire Company was founded in 1722 in Porto with 100 men capable of using the pumps (bombas) and it is from here that the word bombeiro derives from!

The Firemen’s Volunteer Association was established in 1868 as steam pumps took over and it became obligatory for the installation of pump connections in streets and properties. Eventually professional firefighters were needed to permanently man the stations as volunteers had their day job responsibilities. Four years ago there were 42,592 volunteers and 6,363 professionals registered!

I had the honour of talking to Commander Rio Alves who has been in charge of the Lagoa station for 17 years and Sub-chief Alexandra Marçalo who has been a professional bombeira for 18 years.

They explained how bombeiros are an integral part of civil protection and do not just fight fires! Bombeiros are present at crowd gathering events, assist with floods, catastrophes, subaquatic searches, accidents, shipwrecks etc. They run the country’s ambulance service responding to emergencies and transporting the sick to and from hospitals for appointments.

My daughter was amused when she went to school one morning to find it had been her classmate who had treated me in the ambulance the night before after I had been attacked by our ram!

Commander Alves proudly told me that almost every firefighter who comes to the Lagoa station stays for life as their work becomes an addiction. He prefers the challenge of fighting fires although others prefer to assist with health in the community.

Commander Alves was instructed to lead a team of eight Algarve fire trucks in the terrible Pedrógão Grande fire. He explained how helpless firefighters can feel when there is nothing more they can do to help victims. I think it takes a very special and brave person to be able to cope with the tragedy these firefighters see.

Lagoa has 14 ambulances and six firetrucks and the Algarve has three helicopters stationed in Monchique, Loulé and Tavira. Any one of these can be called upon to assist with fires all over Portugal.

Sub-chief Alexandra explained that firefighting was in her blood as her uncles were also bombeiros. She told me: “I love my job because it brings me close to people, I have made friends for life, not only colleagues but also those people we assist. It is so rewarding helping others and that makes it all worthwhile.”

Professional firefighters work 40-hour weeks but also have to work another 12 hours as volunteers. Volunteer firefighters work 12 hours a week, usually the night shifts to fit in with their day jobs or studying. Whilst there is European Community funding, it is never enough. It costs over €800 to equip one individual with the suit, boots, helmet, gloves and goggles. The blue uniformed fight fires, the red do all duties.

Tempted to join these elite individuals? Volunteers must be between 17 and 45 years old and must pass the 250 hours initial training. You do not have to be Portuguese. There are also bombeiro ‘schools’ for six to 16-year-olds destined to become our future firefighters.

All fire stations are grateful for donations and fundraising events are always well attended. There is never a better time to appreciate the bombeiros’ bravery and hard work. I know I do.

So now you know!

By Isobel Costa
|| features@algarveresident.com

Isobel Costa works full time and lives on a farm with a variety of pet animals! In her spare time, she enjoys photography, researching and writing.

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