Exclusive interview with Lagoa Bombeiros Commandant

FOLLOWING ON from last week’s article on the Bombeiros describing their role in Portuguese society, I thought that if I presented some questions to Commandant Vítor Manuel Granadeiro Rio Alves of the Lagoa Bombeiros, I would be able to obtain an even clearer picture.

Val Johnstone: When were Lagoa Bombeiros Voluntários founded?

Commandant Vítor Alves: Lagoa Bombeiros Voluntários were founded in 1978 and have been in the new quarters since 2001.

V.J: How many people work at the Lagoa quarters?

C.V.A: We have 95 staff, male and female, ranging from 14 to 60-years-old. Thirty-one professional Bombeiros and administrators are paid, while 64 are volunteers.  

V.J: How can one volunteer?

C.V.A: You apply to the station and, after filling in a form, you will be called for an interview. You have to like helping your fellow man, be able to work in a team, be strong enough to face and deal with some harrowing situations and be a soldier of peace – giving without expecting anything in return. Once accepted, you receive a uniform and will be asked to choose the day you have available. It is normally a 12-hour shift. Your instruction and training courses on health and firefighting are provided on an ongoing basis at the station. If you fit the profile and have a passion for the job, good men and women are always needed.

V.J: What about the Bombeiros who work full time?

C.V.A: It would be impossible to run a service such as ours if we only had volunteers, as there is always the problem of those volunteers who do not turn up on their allocated day due to either their jobs or family responsibilities. The full-time Bombeiros have a different timetable to the volunteers, which is on constant rotation. On most days, they come in at 8am and leave at 8pm or later, depending on whether they are doing a 24-hour shift.

Many carry on once their shift is over, right through the night or until the early hours of the morning. When there are floods and fires, whether they are on holiday or have days off, these men and women will stay. Nobody at the station sticks to set hours. If you are a true Bombeiro, you are always there when needed. Also, as part of the rota, there is a week we call a long journey, meaning that you have to be on call 24 hours to transport patients or casualties to the various hospitals in the country, at any given time of the day or night. This rota is set apart from the normal schedule and is voluntary work. If, for instance, you get a call out five minutes before your shift is over, you never know what time you will be back and, once you are back, you have to deal with the paperwork involved, as well as the cleaning of the vehicles and equipment.

The salaries received (approximately 600 euros per month) for this work are peanuts compared to those of the firefighters and ambulance crews in the UK and other European countries. If it wasn’t for the love of their job and mankind, these brave men and women would never exist as Bombeiros. They are often unfairly judged by the public, but it is the Portuguese government that does not provide the much-deserved respect and means to help towards better qualifications, equipment and, therefore, a better service for the public.

V.J: Who runs the station?

C.V.A: All the operations and call outs are run by the commander, the second commander, the deputies and the chiefs. When the staff come in to start work in the morning, they are allocated to a team and will know which job they will be doing that day. When a large scale situation arises, you can hear the siren go. This calls in all the Bombeiros and the teams will be distributed accordingly.

The Bombeiros is an association, which has an assembly comprising of a president, two secretaries and a fiscal council, who run all its administrative and financial side. The commandant’s position is held for five years and I took office after being elected through the voting of the assembly. I was first an adjutant, then second in command, after which I became commandant. There is a specific course for the position given by the National School of Bombeiros. The position is voluntary and I hold down a full-time job outside of the Bombeiros.

At the municipal stations, the commandants are commandant professionals and the sapadores commandantes (from Setúbal onwards) are engineering officers from the Portuguese Army – these  are salaried positions.

V.J: How many vehicles do you have at Lagoa and what about uniforms and safety equipment?

C.V.A: With regard to vehicles, the answer is not enough, especially due to the fact that the borough of Lagoa is getting bigger by the year and serving such a large section of the EN125, especially in the summer months. Currently we have two vehicles for forest fires, two for urban fires, one for cutting out passengers trapped in a wreckage and 10 ambulances, some in need of replacement – all of which have to be continually maintained and equipped.

Once again, compared to our men and women in the UK and other European countries, our uniforms and equipment leave much to be desired. We have special uniforms according to the situations we are responding to. For example, we have to dress accordingly for forest fires, floods or ambulance service. We require different uniforms, and this is difficult with little help from the government, although we are proud at Lagoa as we consider ourselves one of the best dressed Bombeiros. However, we still realise it’s not good enough. The correct equipment to carry out the work safely is very expensive and, despite the goodwill of our fundraisers and the association, it is not enough. There is still a big gap between us and other countries. We would like to see our men and women with what they rightly deserve, to enable a better service for their community, while they put their health and lives at risk. But again, I stress that it is our government that does not provide us with the necessary funds.

V.J: Where does the money come from?

C.V.A: There is a stipulated small amount from our government and from the local council, which is never enough. With regard to the transporting of patients or casualties to and from various hospitals and clinics in the country, the majority of these trips are paid for either by the Social Security or by the hospitals. However, due to the government not paying them on time, quite often the payments to the station are late, resulting in a lack of funds to buy what is needed or to pay staff.

Some of the trips are private, which the patient pays on the day of the trip, but there are a lot of outstanding bills; also some of the journey costs are covered by insurance companies. Services such as water deliveries are paid for on delivery. Emergency services are free of charge. You will see from this that it can be quite a nightmare to run and provide all that is necessary.

V.J: We see different ambulances on the road, some marked ‘Bombeiros’ and others with the initials ‘INEM’. What is the difference?

C.V.A: Ambulances marked INEM belong to the Institute for Medical Emergencies that comes under the Ministry for Health. The other ambulances are bought by the Bombeiros Association for their own stations. The Bombeiros come under the umbrella of the Ministry of Internal Affairs, the same as the police.

Although both are working to improve and meet the needs of the people and the community, there is a political struggle in which both want to be in charge. Much of the training is carried out by INEM and there is only a small percentage allotted to the training of the Bombeiros in the Algarve.

V.J: You know how long I have been pressing for the use of defibrillators to be allowed in our ambulances. Are we any nearer to seeing this happen?

C.V.A: I can understand your frustration at the law, for not allowing the carrying of a defibrillator unless a doctor accompanies a patient. But we may at last be seeing a change. The very latest machines, as you know, are voice programmed and so easy to use. In the UK, they are in use in supermarkets, offices, and at railway and bus stations.

The current law here has not changed, but there is now a course starting for professional Bombeiros to use the most modern defibrillators and these are known as Automated External Defibrillators (AEDs). Automated means that the machine detects the electrical activity in the heart and gives automated instructions to the rescuer on what to do. Automated generally means that the AED itself will give the shock when needed.  Instruction and practice in the use of these machines take no longer than two to four hours. We now need to get our men and women on a course and find the funds to buy the defibrillator. As you can appreciate, even if we had bought a defibrillator a couple of years ago, we would not be allowed to use that particular machine.

V.J: What other comments would you like to make?

C.V.A: I have a lot of hope in the new Minister for Internal Affairs that things will soon change and improve for the Bombeiros. The fundraising that you have done has helped our station enormously. The equipment and clothing that has been bought has helped us to carry out our work more safely and efficiently. The expatriate community has proved a lifeline for us, and our station and crew are very appreciative. I feel embarrassed and ashamed of the Portuguese community, which is still very dormant when it comes to charity work.

V.J: We hold our 7th Annual Charity Dinner/Dance on April 1. What are we aiming to buy for the Lagoa Bombeiros this year?

C.V.A: Although we are always in need of firefighting and ambulance equipment, cliff rescue is vitally important, especially as the Algarve is coastal, but equipment tends to be put on the back burner due to ambulances and fire engines being more in the public eye. We really desperately need safety equipment for this team to carry out their rescue work efficiently and safely when they put their lives at risk to help others.

All our men and women are always ready to help to save the public and their properties. They are the soldiers of peace, the real friends that no one talks about, your friends without a name.

I realise that the expatriate community supports many charities in the Algarve, which is the reason why I only ask once a year for support for the Lagoa Voluntary Bombeiros. Please join us on April 1 for our Annual Charity Dinner/Dance at the Fatacil Restaurant at 7.30pm. Tickets cost 25 euros each and include a three-course meal with wine/soft drinks. For tickets or information contact Val Johnstone on 282 471 550 or 917 824 369 or Maria on 916 136 611.

By Val Johnstone, Voluntary Bombeiro