Translating Fire Safety Basics Will Help Prevent Tragedy


Mercedes Olivera | | Monday, October 1, 2007

We've all grown up learning fire drills in elementary schools in this country.

Most of us know the routine. Don't panic. Crawl, if necessary. Look for emergency exit signs, and move out quickly.

But if you grow up in Mexico or Ecuador, where most homes are made of stone or concrete and fires are not as commonplace, chances are you've never heard of these simple life-saving rules.

There are others equally important for children: Don't light matches or candles, and develop an exit strategy.

But getting this information out to ethnically diverse communities is challenging. Dallas, with its growing multinational population, is just one of many urban centers around the country that must identify the language needs of its communities in order to save lives.

Just ask Alberto Olmos, president of the National Association of Hispanic Firefighters, which is holding its 12th annual International Training Conference in Dallas this week.

"Communication is key," said Capt. Olmos, a member of the San Jose, Calif., Fire Department. "All fire departments need to understand their communities and how to communicate the services they offer."

Hispanic firefighters can be a good conduit to do just that, he said. Capt. Olmos said he sees a lot of urban fire departments pushing to recruit more Hispanics and members of other nationalities to better educate their communities.

Ed Davis, past president of the organization and a Dallas firetruck driver, said Latino recruitment is still slow in many parts of the country because it "requires 45 college hours."

Only 13 percent of Dallas firefighters are Hispanic; nationally, about 1 percent come from Spanish-speaking backgrounds.

This month, the Dallas fire department came under scrutiny in a new report that said the department is fractured by racism, sexism and divisions among firefighters, inspectors and paramedics.

Fire Chief Eddie Burns has already taken steps to address discrimination problems and aims to create a more ethnically diverse department.

"But we're really going to have to start at the elementary level, and that may take us 18 to 20 years to bring our numbers up," Mr. Davis said. "We have to get to the young kids, to keep them in school. That's where it starts."

Children of immigrant parents, especially, need to get information about how to survive a fire. Mr. Davis said he has seen tragedies that could have been prevented.

"Many of them lock themselves in a bathroom because they think they'll be safe," he said. "But we see so many die because smoke kills. It happens all the time."

To reach this population, a portion of this week's conference was devoted to bilingual training of teachers and elderly caregivers.

It is holding a training session for teachers from 9 a.m. to noon today at Dallas City Hall. Other sessions were held at the Dallas Fire-Rescue Academy.

Bombero training, they call it, and it now encompasses preparation on how to deal with hazardous materials, as well as how to look for people in a fiery building and how to save yourself in a fire.

Most firefighters from Latin America are volunteers and don't get paid, Mr. Davis said. They also don't have the proper fire coats, helmets and equipment, so the group is presenting about 200 outfits to their comrades.

It's a natural extension of the gathering - to give them something to take back with them that can save their lives.

They look out for one another, Capt. Olmos said. Because whether they live in the United States or Guatemala or Ecuador, all firefighters share a common fellowship that unites them.

"It's a family, throughout the world," he said. "There's something about the humanity we all share when we risk our lives for the safety of others."

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