SOTO CANO AIR BASE, Honduras –
Last week, a group of 35 Central American firefighters gathered in Soto Cano Air Base, Honduras to improve their interoperability along with members of Joint Task Force-Bravo's fire department. These firefighters tested their skills in a series of scenarios that required teamwork and endurance.
Miguel Matus, a courageous Belizean firefighter for over 20 years perfectly exemplified this teamwork. The Belize National Fire Service has a total of approximately 100 firefighters in their service nationwide for an estimated population of 347,600, which makes this task not only more strenuous and dangerous, but also more heroic and dependant on good coordination and excellent team work.
Always available to help his Central American peers and assist them in any way he could, be it translating from English to Spanish, or helping them with simple things such as adjusting or carrying their equipment, Miguel was always willing to help and was ready to work together in order to accomplish their goal as a team. He never stopped motivating his partners while remaining focused, and this is precisely the purpose of CENTAM SMOKE: to better prepare Central American partners, along with their U.S. counterparts, so that they may assist each other in the events of natural disasters as well as support each other in the region.
After his graduation, during a brief interview, Miguel had this to say:
Q: What was your experience like, working with people from all across Central America as well as the United States?
A: I have realized that in Belize we have been fortunate to participate in many trainings with the U.S. and being here I see that other countries haven't had this same opportunity, but that doesn't make me bigger than them. This motivates me to help them and I know they will go back to their countries and put this into practice. This is the reason for bringing us here, to help each other out in a different environment, and this in turn will make us develop a friendship.
Q: What does it take to be a firefighter?
A: To be a firefighter you need to have discipline. There will be times or situations when you feel you can't do it anymore, you get desperate and you have to think "you can". You are here to help. This is the hardest part, you have to be patient and then you will have the courage to reach your goal, and you can't be afraid. As the saying goes "people run from fires and the crazy firemen run to it". We have to prepare ourselves psychologically and physically for an incident, and know that the mind controls the body.
Q: How do you feel when you save a life?
A: Happy. I don't think there are words to express how happy you feel, even though we go in and we go out without much though, because if we think about it too much this may affect us.
Q: What is the hardest part of your job?
A: The hardest part is wanting to do everything at the same time; but we have to plan how to do things step by step - if not, we can run in to trouble and we may not return home. We have to do things carefully and cautiously, remembering that we have to save a life, that's our goal, more than to save material things.
Q: What is the most gratifying part of your job?
A: What makes me feel the best is going to work and being able to come home. Our goal is to do our work and come home safely and unharmed.
Q: One of your coworkers mentioned that Belize relies on approximately 100 firefighters in its service for the entire country, what do you think about this?
A: I think they are too few. Belize is small but very demanding and we need to get more staff, more equipment and in this way improve our work. We want to save lives but we are risking our lives because we don't have the right equipment, many times we have to improvise.
Q: Why do you believe you are under staffed?
A: For starters, it's hard work. You saw it: the equipment is heavy and you have to really give yourself to this type of work. Your mind can't be at home or partying; this work takes dedication. Even in practices we can get hurt. Your mind needs to be on the job and you have to leave everything else aside.
Q: Why do you do it?
A: It's in my blood. In the beginning it's hard but with the years you adapt.
Q: What does it mean for you, having participated in CENTAM SMOKE?
A: It was very important for me. It's a good and new experience. The aircraft was new to me, and where I come from we have a small airport and I've always wondered, if anything happened, what do we do? Now I can say I know something and I can carry on. Also, we gained friendships and we know how to work with the rest of our Central American partners. We are prepared for something we don't want happening, a big disaster, and we may find each other again someday and we will know how to coordinate ourselves. We have learned from being together and from discussing with peers on how we can do our work and how to communicate between the different stations of our countries. Even if in reality everything will be different because it will be a surprise, here we have planned, and we plan for surprises.
Just like Miguel, who joined the Belize National Fire Service because he liked the challenge, all Central American participants now face the challenge of putting everything they learned in the past week into practice in each of their countries, as well as share their experience with their fire squadrons after completing CENTAM SMOKE and after practicing together, to be better partners and team members, better firefighters and better heroes for Central America.