This is Why Firefighters in Chile Are All Volunteers

SANTIAGO – In Chile, firefighters are volunteers. Although there is limited support from government and municipal sources, many regard their unpaid labor as unfair, as their service for their communities is often life-risking. Fire Brigade Superintendent Leonel Nualart says he hopes for a future where “firefighters in Chile will not need to go out to the streets asking for funds.”

Although Bomberos de Chile (Chile’s firefighting institution) is economically supported by the government when it comes to equipment, it is known for being an all-volunteer force. Firefighters must also pay a monthly fee to their departments, as well as pay for some of their personal equipment and uniforms.

Firefighters’ volunteer status is established by the Firefighter Frame Law, Article 2, which reads: “[Firefighters] will have by goal to assist, free and voluntarily, the emergencies caused by nature or human beings, such as fires, traffic accidents or others, with no regards of specific competencies of other public or private organizations.”

“This voluntary tradition dates back to the foundation of the service in the mid-19 Century, and most Chilean firefighters would not have it any other way,” the BBC reported several years ago.

This system, however, can be risky in times of crisis. National Fire Brigade President Raúl Bustos says that firefighters in Chile have it tough as self-sustaining institutions, after 45 days in a permanent alert state due to the crisis. “[Fire brigades] will soon not have enough money for their own procedures,” he told BioBioChile, adding that they will be working with the government to find solutions to the firefighters’ crisis. 

Fire brigades are one of the most well-regarded institutions in the country, with a 95% approval rating, according to BioBioChile.

How Do Firefighters in Chile Sustain Themselves?

In Chile, fire brigades receive funds via the Nation Budget Law—a yearly decree in which the government distributes the annual budget to different institutions and initiatives for the year to come. According to Bomberos de Chile, CLP$3 billion (US$3.75 million) were given to the fire brigades of Chile, while the budget for the National Firefighter Academy was CLP$2.5 billion (US$3.13 million) in 2019. In August 2019, Metropolitan brigades received 19 fire trucks for 16 fire brigades in the region.

The funds also come as specified by the Companies Law (Law 18,046), Article 26, which allows fire brigades to receive funds from dividends that have not been claimed for at least 5 years. As specified by Firefighter Inventory, these funds are returned to the National Board, with no specific rules on redistribution.

Fire Brigades Superintendent of Temuco Leonel Nualart Castro told Chile Today that the funds cover two main expenses: “Depending on the particular characteristics, location, and needs, the fire brigades divide their funds between operational and investment matters. Operational matters are to pay truck drivers’ salaries, gas, and other needs for us to actively perform our labor. Investment matters refer to minor expenses and materials, like uniforms, helmets, hoses, etc.”

Other forms of economic support come from the donation initiatives of municipalities and regional governance, as well as donations from the community or the fire brigade members themselves. In this regard, the Firefighter Inventory also says that fire brigades can enter contests to acquire Regional Development Funds, which Fire Brigades Regional Councils will distribute.

Regarding municipal grants, Nualart told Chile Today, “These grants can make up to 30% of our funding. This kind of support, however, is not always possible for all fire brigades. Smaller, communal ones may not have access to it, either because they are too small or because local institutions cannot afford such help.”

Last but not least, there is also the self-organized initiatives by fire brigades. Firefighters often can be seen in the streets of Chilean cities, offering raffle numbers or asking for donations to complete their financial expenses—a situation that is controversial to many, including the Temuco Superintendent himself. “I, as Fire Brigade Superintendent in Temuco, am against such practices, because they denigrate firefighters’ labor. We should just worry about being directly supported, so we can count on all of our time to perform our work appropriately,” says Nualart.

Nevertheless, Nualart still supports the volunteer character of firefighters in Chile. “Fire brigades are an institution that was born under … values of social ethics and morals at the service of human need … This is why it is volunteer work. We all feel proud about giving something to our community. As an altruistic act, it does not need to be paid. If someone thinks otherwise, it is equally valid; but firefighters are defined by a service vocation, motivated by their love for humanity. Loyalty and discipline are values that have made fire brigades active and appreciated since their foundation,” he said. “Fire brigades can work like this, but it could be better. It would be good if there was an increase on the funding capacity from the government …”

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