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Fighting fire: A duty that cannot wait

The alarm bell sounded at 12:30 p.m., just as the firemen at the Gagalangin Fire Station were set to eat lunch. Without hesitation, each man responded to the call of duty following the standard operating procedure for a swift drill – be in the fire truck in a minute; arrive at the scene in five minutes.

The quick response brought them to a residential-commercial structure at the corner of Lavezares and Madrid Streets in Binondo that was being gobbled up in flames.

The fire, which had reached third alarm, was finally put off about three hours later.  There was not any fatality. Swift response and skill had won some victory over a menace that brings tragedy and loss to many people each year.

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After extinguishing the fire, the firemen of Gagalangin station boarded the Engine 9 firetruck, heading back to where lunch still waited, only to be consumed closer to dinner. It was just another day in March, the usually busy National Fire Prevention Month.

FIGHTING FIRE

Leading that team of firefighters is Lords Hernandez, officer-in-charge Fire Officer 2. He was tired, yet he still managed to smile. It was not his plan to be a fireman.  Coming from a family of policemen, he had always wanted to be a cop.

Hernandez earned a Bachelor of Science degree in Criminology in 1997, he knew exactly what he wanted to do next – be a cop. But as fate had it, in December 1999, he found himself taking an oath for the fire service. From there the 24-year-old Hernandez found himself in a Cavite fire station as a trainee.

He vividly recalls the first time he responded to a fire emergency which involved a vehicle in Cavite. “I was so afraid the car would explode that I forgot to wear my helmet. I later learned that burning cars won’t explode,” he said.

Soon after, he pursued an advertisement for a job opening at the Bureau of Fire Protection (BFP) which his wife found in the Manila Bulletin Classified Ads.

“I did not know what I was getting into. I thought it was I was going to do office work. I just wanted to have a job,” he said.

He got the job and three months into his firefighting journey, his team started to respond to more and more fire incidents.

LIKE A CELEBRITY

“Doon nag-sink in sa akin na masarap pala itong napasok ko (That’s when it sank in to me that I was liking what I got into),” he recounted. “I felt like I was a celebrity, because after the fire, people would come to me and hug me to show their gratitude.”

In 2001, Hernandez was assigned to Gagalangin, his hometown where he is currently OIC. His day starts at 8 a.m and ends at the same time the following day.

 “In the Philippines, a fireman is on duty for 24 hours then goes off-duty for the next 24 hours,” he explained.

As OIC, he instructs his crew on what to do, and the fire truck driver on where to position the vehicle when responding to a fire.

IT ALL STARTS FROM A CALL

Swift response starts from a call.  From there, the person tasked to take phone calls verifies a report for accuracy.

“After verification, we press the buzzer. Our standard operating procedure is that everybody must be on the fire truck within one minute and we should arrive at the scene in five minutes,” Hernandez said. “That is why the OIC should be street smart.”

After fulfilling their duties and in between responding to an emergency call, the firemen are allowed to play or sleep. He said that people who see them relaxing have the mistaken notion that their job is easy.

Of course, we cannot stay awake for 24 hours straight because we need energy in case there is an alarm. That is why they need to sleep. To keep fit, there’s a basketball court and tennis court in the compound, he said.

DIFFICULT FIRES

Although no fire is simple in character, there are some that demands more time, skill and energy to extinguish.  And it also takes a toll on the firemen’s health, he said.

One of those difficult cases was the fire in Smokey Mountain, Tondo. “Putting out the fire there was really difficult for us because of the presence of methane gas. There was an instance when it took us almost two weeks to battle it out. My health declined then,” he said.

But he said he does not have reason to complain; he receives a fair compensation, unlike volunteers who do not get anything at all.

“We have volunteers here who help us without getting anything in return and they do not complain. So how can we complain when we are being compensated to help people,” he said.

Being a fireman can also be emotionally challenging because lives are always at risk.

We always try our best to save people, especially children.  We cannot savor the feeling of successfully putting  out a fire when there is a fatality, he said.

COMMON CAUSES OF FIRE

 Hernandez said that three to four fire incidents occur in his area every week, and one of the most common causes is negligence. Things that people neglect are electric fans and liquefied petroleum gas (LPG) which cause fire that can quickly spread in an area where there are many structures made of light materials.

NO REGRETS

After 16 years of serving the BFP, Hernandez has responded to some 1,000 fire incidents, and completed 500 fire investigations.  By now, he has let go of his childhood dream to be a cop. His reason – he feels more needed as a fire fighter.

 “The people need us,” he said.