Peru's firefighters struggle as economy booms

AP News
Posted: Nov 28, 2011 5:23 PM
Peru's firefighters struggle as economy booms

Every time Alex Herhuay sets out in his Lima fire brigade's 36-year-old Isuzu hook-and-ladder truck for a rescue, his worries aren't just about the mission ahead.

"We are thinking: 'I sure hope the engine doesn't quit,'" the young firefighter said.

Peru's economy may be booming, but there is scant evidence of the export-driven mineral bonanza in Herhuay's fire company, nor in the other 191 citizens brigades in this rugged Andean country of 29 million people.

Peru's firefighters are so cash-strapped and ill-equipped that vital lifesaving equipment too often fails at a burning building or at a crash scene where people are pretzeled in mangled vehicles.

And that's when it's possible to answer the call.

Peru's underequipped first responders are unable to answer 40,000 emergency calls a year, or nearly a third of the annual pleas for help, because they are short of equipment, pumps and ambulances, said the national fire chief, Antonio Zavala.

Ninety percent of Peru's firefighters lack fire-resistant clothing and oxygen, he added. "You need tremendous patience in this line of work."

Not just firefighting but other basic services including police protection, education, roads, health care and running water remain decidedly undeveloped in Peru even as its leaders tout record-breaking growth as evidence it is en route to developed-world status. Annual economic growth has topped 8 percent in three of the last four years, driven by booming exports of gold, copper and fish meal.

About a third of Peruvians live in poverty, down from 48 percent in 2006, according to government statistics. But the rate is far higher in the countryside, and roughly 10 percent of Peruvians live in extreme poverty, defined as a household living on less than $55 a month.

It's a problem elsewhere in the region, even in neighboring Brazil, where commodities exports are expanding the middle class. But Peru's neglect of its firefighters is notably egregious.

Peruvian political commentator Jorge Bruce says it's a shameful sign of "the fragility of solidarity among Peruvians and shows how a weak state creates shortages and unsatisfied needs in basic services."

In neighboring Chile, Colombia and Argentina, firefighters generally enjoy the status of being professional and well-equipped forces. Even Ecuador, which more closely shares Peru's economic profile, has made serious investments in fire protection.

Ecuador's two main cities, Quito and Guayaquil, have 1,100 firefighters on their combined payrolls, use modern equipment and send some staff for training in the United States and France.

In Peru, all 8,000 active firefighters are volunteers like Herhuay, a 27-year-old miner who gives the fire brigade all his seven days a month off.

The annual national budget for Peru's firefighters is $19 million. In Colombia, the capital city of Bogota alone spends nearly twice that amount, $36 million, and this year bought 21 new fire trucks.

Nineteen of every 20 Peruvian fire department vehicles are more than 11 years old; more than one in three exceed age 40. Many are in the shop as much as they're on the road.

"You try to rush an elderly person with a heart attack to the hospital and the ambulance breaks down," Herhuay said with a sigh.

Outside this coastal capital, it's worse.

In the southern town of Ayaviri, near Lake Titicaca, firefighters use crowbars, sledgehammers and band saws to free people trapped in wrecks on the highway linking Brazil with the Pacific coast, said Nicolas Umpiri, the town's fire chief.

Sometimes when firefighters arrive late, they are showered in rocks and boos, added Umpiri, 40, who makes his living driving a taxi.

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The coastal city of Pisco had only one old firetruck when an August 2007 earthquake leveled buildings just as night fell. Not until the following day did Lima's fire corps arrive. More than 590 lives were lost.

In Cuzco, gateway to Peru's prime tourist destination of Machu Picchu, fire chief Jorge Luna said his department's problems became evident in March 2006 during a road accident involving a tourist bus in which 16 people, including three Americans, were killed.

"Tourists bled to death and we were impotent for lack of equipment," Luna said.

In August, conditions got so bad that Peru's firefighters were reduced to selling bracelets outside shopping centers to raise money. They've netted $75,000 to date.

The government has announced that it is giving Lima and its port of Callao $18 million to buy new fire trucks and ambulances next year.

The only country in South America with worse-equipped firefighters is Bolivia.

Its doleful straits were display in January when a nine-story building collapsed in Santa Cruz, an eastern city of more than 1 million people. Eight people died, and the government had to bring in rescue teams from Mexico, Chile and Argentina.

The Bolivian capital of La Paz and sister city of El Alto, home to 2.7 million people, have just two water tankers and three 1960s vintage fire engines between them.

It's sadly simple, said a La Paz firefighter, Lt. Juan Carlos Flores: "We are not able to put out more than two fires at a time."


Associated Press writers Frank Bajak in Lima, Peru; Vivian Sequera in Bogota, Colombia; Gonzalo Solano in Quito, Ecuador; and Paola Flores in La Paz, Bolivia, contributed to this report.