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Part-time firefighters, full-time heroes

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He could see that the kid was terrified.

The fire, which started on the ground floor, has started to spread to the rooftops, endangering the people huddled there, including a father and his two small kids.

Members of the Chamber Volunteer Fire Brigade brave the flames and the suffocating smoke as they combat the fire that hit Java Pension House in the early morning of 26 November. | Photo by Richard D. Meriveles

The heat from the corrugated roof was getting unbearable while acrid smoke had started to make visibility almost impossible. Anytime, any of these things could happen: the ladder might fall, the flimsy skylight roof might collapse under the weight of the rescuers and the others who were trapped there, and the fire could get worse.

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But Dysan Rodriguez chose to set those morbid possibilities aside. He was focused on saving the people in front of him, which included a little girl, about five, and her sibling who was exhibiting signs of trauma.

Volunteer firefighter Dysan Rodriguez describes the dangerous conditions of during his rescue of pension house residents trapped in the rooftop. | Photo by Richard D. Meriveles

“She reminds me of my little girl,” Dysan tells DNX, “and I imagined what it would be like if it was my daughter in her shoes.”

So he focused on the little girl, not minding the panicked sounds beneath the streets, the heat, the acrid smoke, or the fact that he was suspended 80-feet up in the air, using his firefighter’s training to set aside distractions that might botch his rescue job.

And conduct the successful rescue he did.

Dysan not only was able to extract the child, but also the others who were trapped on that rooftop. His determination and grim focus to get the job done – thanks to his training and his years of experience both as rescuer and firefighter – lives were saved.

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And he is not alone.

LEADER OF THE (FIREFIGHTER) BAND

Dysan’s story is, without a doubt, a riveting tale of rescue. He is after all, one of the early responders to the fire that hit Java Pension House just last month which claimed six lives, including that of the owner.

But that was not his first rescue, nor his last.

And certainly that story is commonplace if you are a firefighter, or in the case of Dysan, a member of the Bacolod Chamber Volunteer Fire Brigade.

Hero in yellow. The Chamber firetruck, painted in the brigade’s iconic yellow, is a familiar sight when there’s a fire call. | Photo by Richard D. Meriveles

The firefighting brigade – key word “volunteer” – are a band of brothers from diverse backgrounds with a common passion: service.

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The team is currently led by Fire Chief Bryant Lao, a second generation firefighter who inherited the passion from his father, a Chinese from the mainland whose dream to be full-time firefighter was thwarted by a written exam.

That frustration, Chief Bryant said, is part of what motivated him to become a volunteer firefighter.

“My father was one of those recruited but, since he’s Chinese, his written and oral English were limited. So, he backed out when it comes to the written exam then administered by the Bureau of Fire Protection,” Chief Bryant tells DNX.

HAIL TO THE CHIEF. Fire chief Bryant Lao explains to DNX Executive Editor Julius Mariveles the values that define volunteering despite the risks. | Photo by Richard D. Meriveles

The fire chief remembers the Java Pension fire as he is one of those who responded to the call.

“I didn’t expect that it would be that big, but I had an idea that there would be casualties because the fire was right at the entrance, and there was only one entrance and one exit,” the veteran firefighter of 28 years recalls.

HEROES WITHOUT CAPES. A firefighter douses fires in the upper floor of the Java Pension House that gutted the building and killed six, including the owner and his family. | Photo by Richard D. Meriveles

The first thing he did upon arriving at the scene was a scene size-up, or a quick yet complete on-scene assessment of the details of the affected structure and other conditions, like the proximity of a fire hydrant. He was done with the size-up when he saw several people on the rooftop on one side of the building.

Fire Ground Commander Mark Steven Chiu describes how a simple “thank you” from people he rescued is enough to keep him going. | Photo by Richard D. Mariveles

He had already set up the ladder for a potential rescue when two of his men — Fire Ground Commander Mark Steven Chiu, and his Deputy Christian John Aguilar – directed his attention to another part of the building.

“I credit my two men… they were the ones (who made the suggestion to transfer),” he says.

All these – from the size-up to the decision — were done in less than 15 minutes, and those crucial 15 minutes, said Chief Bryant, could be a matter of life and death.

Still, despite the action, the fire chief says that the pension house fire was not even one of the worst he has encountered. The worst he can recall, he says, was the fire along Alunan Avenue more than a decade ago.

The fire started in a small community of informal settlers, so the fire quickly spread and was very difficult to contain.

The aftermath. These were all that remain of the Java Pension House after it was hit fire last November of this year. | Photo by Richard D. Meriveles

Chief Bryant remembers that he was jumping from one rooftop to the next when he fell off.

That, he says, was something that he would never forget for a long time.

BAND OF BROTHERS, COMRADES FOR A CAUSE

There’s passion. There’s commitment. There’s service. All three are combined in the firefighting.

What makes the combination even more remarkable is that risk is also a huge part of it.

For volunteer firefighter Jemar Xavier Del Castillo – a veteran of the Pension House fire – he recognizes the fact that what he and his brothers in the brigade are doing poses a lot of risk, the kind of risk that could mean actual death with a single misstep.

Firefighter Jemar Xavier Del Castillo explains to DNX managing head how he feels the first time he responded to a fire call. | Photo by Richard D. Meriveles

In fact, Jemar remembers the time that he responded to a fire call.

“I’ve had jitters,” he says in Hiligaynon. He had to set aside his nerves, though, in order to focus on the task at hand.

Eventually, he says, the jitters wore off.

The solution?

“Trust – both in God, and in your companions,” Jemar says.

It also helps that there is that passion to help, to know that somehow you have done some good to the world.

“We don’t get paid; but (volunteering) has been in our hearts,” he says.

Dysan echoes what Jemar says.

“What inspires us? It’s the passion to help,” he says. There were times, he recalls, when he quit firefighting for various personal reasons but he keeps coming back. It’s as if his system, his being, is looking for it.

The sentiments were echoed by Mark Steven Chiu, who has been with the firefighting team for 15 years.

Band of brothers. Volunteer firefighters enjoy a much-needed rest after hours of battling the blaze that hit a pension house here. | Photo by Richard D. Meriveles

Firefighting – and the discipline and lifestyle that go with it – has been so deeply-ingrained in him that he finds himself performing random acts of kindness just because he wants to.

“Even without our uniforms, we feel compelled to help – like helping somebody cross the street,” he says.

The DNX managing editor and volunteer firefighter Dysan Rodriguez find a spot for the interview. | Photo by Richard D. Meriveles

Mark Steven finds it hard-pressed to find words for the impulse to help people.

But, he says, the ultimate payback comes in the form of grateful people who find time to thank them, affirm what they do.

“It’s a great feeling,” he confesses, as he gets overwhelmed with emotions recalling the time when a victim of a head-on collision found time to thank him and his comrades merely days after the accident. “All the tiredness just melts away,” he adds.

The men and women of Chamber, here with Mark Steven Chiu, hang out at the base, ready for a distress or fire call. | Photo by Richard D. Meriveles

It’s enough, the volunteers say, that they know that their efforts are appreciated.

“It is something ingrained in all of us,” Chief Bryant says, adding, “We can sleep well at night knowing we have done something, knowing we have helped others.”

The fire chief says that the spirit of volunteerism – bolstered by determination, faith in God, and the practical knowledge gained from rigorous training – that keeps them going.

Mark Steven Chiu manuevers the fire truck, giving editors of DNX a feel of what it is like inside the behemoth. | Photo by Richard D. Meriveles

It helps, too, that his wife is very understanding and supportive, being a practitioner of the medicine herself, so she knows what it is like to drop everything else for the sake of service.

Service. Not media mileage. Not media publicity. Not for the cameras.

Heroes, after all, do not always wear capes.

Some come in yellow shirts, and a big God-darn hose.

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Hannah A. Papasinhttp://facebook.com/hannah.mariveles
Writer. Critic. Professor. She started writing since primary school and now has two published textbooks on communication. A film buff, she's a Communication, Media Literacy and Journalism Professor of the University of St. La Salle-Bacolod, and has a Master's Degree in English.

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