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Feb 17, 2021

The Strength in Volunteer Firefighting in Toledo!

When we think about firefighters, the popular image comes from the movies: men and women in heavy gear going up ladders near tall buildings, multiple fire trucks pumping water to douse the flames. But in many parts of Belize, resources are tight and the rugged terrain can stretch already limited personnel and equipment. There is always a need for volunteers, brave people able to mobilize at a moment’s notice. Tonight, News Five’s Andrea Polanco heads south to find out how PG firefighters manage to protect this big district and why they are now trying to protect their volunteer firefighting program as well.


Wilmer Martinez

Wilmer Martinez, Volunteer Firefighter, Punta Gorda Fire Station

“I decided to be a volunteer because I grew up around fire stations. My brothers were all volunteers and I just started to help the community.   On my first fire it was a bit – I was afraid but through-out the time I get used to it and it doesn’t matter anymore.”


Andrea Polanco, Reporting

Wilmer Martinez has been volunteering with the Punta Gorda Fire Station since 2017. He and fourteen other volunteers give their time to put out fires in the Toledo District. These volunteers are attached to the Punta Gorda Fire Station where they serve the town and thirty-three villages. It’s a small fire station that has a team of six full-time fire-fighters and one fire truck, so it’s almost impossible for them to respond to fires across a broad geographic area. That is why they started the volunteer firefighter program. Fireman Evan Melendez helps to train these volunteers.


Evan Melendez, Firefighter, Punta Gorda Fire Station

“The fire ground survival; the pump and primers; the different tools and equipment that we have to work with; these are things we need because without the tools we cannot get our job done. If there is a fire out there and the truck leaves from here then Punts Gorda is unattended for and so if we can develop some sort of team out there in the village then that would be a plus for the department.”


Between April and early June of last year, there were more than sixty wildfires that burned homes and destroyed agricultural fields. And that’s why the maintenance of the station’s volunteer programme is critical in safeguarding life and property.


Chadwick Foreman

Chadwick Foreman, Officer in Charge, Punta Gorda Fire Station

“Responding to a lot of bush fires here in the town and as well as some of the rural villages that we respond to. We are gearing up again to face those challenges again. We know that this year might be a little bit more than we faced last year.”


Andrea Polanco

“Now, how important are the volunteers to the work that you do, because it is a small staff you have?”


Chadwick Foreman

“Yes. The volunteers are the key backbone to our assistance. They are all selected from some of the strategic villages that we had faced those huge bush fires last year and they will play a vital role being a fire marshal within their community.”


But while they provide significant support to disaster prevention and response in Toledo, these volunteers receive only a small stipend to compensate their efforts. Over the years, role of fire service has expanded to sort of an all-hazards response – from mad-made fires to accidents to natural disasters.  And so they are asking for more support – better financial reward, as well as proper work equipment; and working environment because the station itself has seen better days.


Chadwick Foreman

“It is tremendously difficult because if we don’t have the proper equipment to get our job done, it puts a lot of strain and struggle on our shoulder trying to see how best we can protect the life of our citizens and their property as well.”


Evan Melendez

Evan Melendez

“They do need some type of compensation although we know they are getting it but it is not really enough because these guys travel all the way from the villages and take out of their own pocket – plus that is just for passage but they need for their families; their  own needs.”


….and the Minister of Disaster Risk Reduction Orlando Habet and C.E.O. Dr. Kenrick Williams visited the fire station to speak with the firefighters about these concerns. C.E.O. Williams says they are exploring a number of options to address these concerns.


Kenrick Williams

Dr. Kenrick Williams, C.E.O., Ministry of Disaster Risk Reduction

“So, we quickly discussed some options this morning that may immediately be available for increasing compensation for these volunteers because they are the core of really the disaster and fire response in PG and Toledo. So, yes, we are certainly evaluating that as one of the key challenges that they have in terms of not just the amount but the timeliness with which they get their compensation and the duration of their compensation. We have been stunned at the significant lack of resources at these stations and the resources available for them to do their work. Of course you know the economic situation of the government and the country but that doesn’t mean we can’t find innovative ways to provide the type of resources for the firemen to do their job. One thing that we are exploring is the public-private partnership options.  So, we are looking at those options and of course now we have to go and champion because it is the mandate of the government to provide the resources and so we have to look within our budget and try to see where we can be innovative and then, again, some blended finance options.”


Reporting for News Five, I’m Andrea Polanco.


The PG volunteer program is so popular that the July recruiting effort yielded thirty-two applicants; however, only half that number could be accepted due to funding constraints.  As you saw in Andrea’s story, the communities served are spread out, from Punta Gorda Town and Cattle Landing, just a mile and a half outside of town to Forest Home, Elridge, Jacinto and Mafredi Village where several farmers lost their cacao plantations which were their main source of income.

Viewers please note: This Internet newscast is a verbatim transcript of our evening television newscast. Where speakers use Kriol, we attempt to faithfully reproduce the quotes using a standard spelling system.

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