By Bob Graham
Published Monday, May 21, 2012
San Diego -- San Diego and Belgian firefighters have a lot in common, but there are some major differences too. That is one of the reasons a group of 14 firefighters from Belgium chose to spend a week with the San Diego Fire-Rescue Department.
In the course of the week, the group had a chance to observe and learn first-hand what many of the specialty groups, such as hazmat, the bomb squad, heavy-rescue, air operations, and the repair facility, all do within the daily operation of the fire department. When not learning, they were positioned at various stations throughout the city, working alongside San Diego firefighters.
The visit was planned through an organization called Fire Observers, a Belgian non-profit organization formed in 1996 that, through dues-paying members, promotes trips for firefighters to the United States to work alongside American firefighters. All of the Belgian firefighters who visited San Diego last week belong to the group.
The Belgian firefighters participated in a roof ventilation training session given by Truck 10’s crew, Captain John Wilson, Engineer Jason Brackpool and Firefighters Chuck Trudersheim and Vino Ornelas. Then, Belgian firefighters Carl Verstrepen, Jan Van Cauwenberghe, Frederick DeVos and Yannick Calcoen took a few minutes to talk about the visit and the differences in departments.
Brussels has eight fire stations for a population of 1 million people. San Diego, with a population of 1.3 million, has six times as many stations, but still comes in below NFPA-recommendations for number of locations and response times. Belgian response times are much longer; having to wait for volunteers to arrive at a station to go on a run is major factor. A typical fire station in Belgium has one piece of fire apparatus, which can be 20–25 years old, whereas in San Diego a front-line rig is ready to be replaced after 10 years. The largest station in Belgium has 75 vehicles, ranging from utility vehicles to apparatus.
Buildings in Belgium are mostly concrete and stone, whereas in the United States wood framing is the construction of choice. Each calls for vastly different approaches to putting out fires. Medical responses, a major event in daily firefighter life, usually involve a fire apparatus and ambulance here, but in Belgium, ambulances are sent on their own. San Diego firefighters were impressed with the additional safety features of the Belgians’ fire helmets, which they brought with them. Helicopters have to be obtained via the military in Belgium, with a long wait time; San Diego owns two helicopters that are available year-round for response.
Interestingly, Belgium and the United States have similar numbers of volunteer firefighters. Nearly 75% of Belgium firefighters are volunteers, who train not only to fight fires, but to be EMT’s, Paramedics and engineers. In the U.S., NFPA estimates that 70% of firefighters are volunteer, although fire protection in many communities is provided by career firefighters or combi departments.
In the end, both groups of firefighters will have exchanged ideas and department practices ranging from how to hold a charged hoseline to vehicle extrications. Each firefighter pays their own way to come over for the learning experience. In their down time, the visitors compare notes with each other, and share their experiences with others when they return home, making the fire service safer and better for all involved. Many did not know each other before the trip, but there’s no doubt that lifelong bonds have been made during the stay.
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