Peru’s firefighters need financial rescue

Underfunding leaves calls unanswered, squads ill-equipped

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LIMA, Peru — 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 Mr. 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.

Volunteer firefighter William Sierra carries fire hoses to be tested outside El Agustino 176 fire station in Lima, Peru. The country'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. (Associated Press)

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Volunteer firefighter William Sierra carries fire hoses to be tested outside El ... more >

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 national Fire Chief Antonio Zavala.

Ninety percent of Peru’s firefighters lack fire-resistant clothing and oxygen, Chief Zavala said. “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.

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